GM Recallgate

By now, you may have heard that small news item about the GM recall. A recall that is now quite massive in scale, and that was precipitated by a defective ignition switch linked to at least 13 deaths. Yeah, it’s kind of a big deal.

I had all sorts of things to say about Recallgate, from my perspective as an attorney, a car enthusiast and someone quasi-knowledgable about the auto industry. But Jon Stewart pretty much summed up everything I would have said, and with fewer words.  Please watch this.

Bottom line: it is never a good business case to ignore and/or cover up a safety issue. Never. As GM’s new CEO, Mary Barra, said, while being tarred and feathered on Capitol Hill this week, GM is moving from a cost culture to a customer culture. Let’s hope so. That is always a better way.

I watched a fair amount of Barra’s testimony before the House committee on Tuesday and the Senate subcommittee on Wednesday. A few takeaways: Barra said a lot of the right things. And when members of Congress pressed her to commit to something and she demurred until the ongoing internal investigation is complete, I didn’t begrudge her that. If I was her attorney, or GM’s, I would have advised her to do exactly that. Because the facts need to be known first. Still, I get why a failure to commit to a yes or no answer, regardless of the stage of things, is very frustrating to people or comes across like avoidance. And words are just words. GM, under Barra’s leadership, will have to stand by what it professes to be its new philosophy and its commitment to making this quite bad situation right. Unless and until it does that, it will not earn and/or regain the public’s trust.

And the fact that GM’s bankruptcy absolves it of any liability for claims prior to July 2009? Yeah, that’s a bitch. That’s how bankruptcy works. But that is an absolute bitch. I don’t sniff some vast conspiracy, though, like some do. Unless GM’s corporate leadership was collectively on crack and thought it would be best for the company to file bankruptcy to get out some potential future liability, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. The timing of Barra’s appointment to the “fall guy” position? That is a bit more suspect, in my opinion. Just saying.

That being said, watching our elected officials engage in political theatre this week did not exactly inspire my confidence. Believe me, I am no GM apologist. I’ve never even liked GM that much, although I have been rooting for Barra since her promotion on January 15. I feel no compulsion to make excuses for GM or to argue that this situation is less bad than it is. And yet, most of the members of Congress I watched in this week’s hearings acted like a bunch of hacks, Republicans and Democrats alike. Many professed outrage, and raised their voices and/or wagged their fingers at Barra. Many made grand references to the “American people” and their sudden deep and abiding concern for our safety.

Hogwash. Congress wanted to grandstand, and it did. Those hearings were way too early in the process of the various ongoing investigations to reveal anything substantive as far as the facts are concerned. This was simply a chance for our fine Congresspeople to politick, and that they did. What a waste of time, money and resources. By all means, conduct multiple, extensive investigations. Those need doing. But don’t waste two days grandstanding in front of the cameras – do real work. And if you’re going to hold hearings at such an early stage, ask real questions, questions that might elicit useful information. Information that could lead to punishing the wrongdoers in this case, and prevent this kind of bad corporate behavior from happening in the future. Beating your chest in front of the cameras so you can get campaign dollars and be reelected? I saw a few – but very few – Congresspeople who asked thoughtful questions and did so in a respectful, professional and serious way. As though they were attempting to – gasp – gather facts and understand the situation. The rest was theatre. I’m not having it.

That’s my two cents, folks. Get your shit together, GM, and fix what you broke. Congress, seriously? Ninety percent of you I have zero respect for. Thanks ever so for getting indignant on my behalf. Ha.

Perhaps Congress should follow GM’s example and issue a massive recall. Both institutions, one in Detroit and one in Washington, need to clean house.