GM’s CEO Came to Congress With Fixes. Congress Told Her to Do More.

Mary Barra testified Wednesday on why the automaker took so long to address a deadly defect.

National Journal
Marina Koren
June 18, 2014, 8:05 a.m.

Mary Barra ar­rived at the Cap­it­ol with a much-an­ti­cip­ated list of fixes on Wed­nes­day.

The CEO of Gen­er­al Mo­tors told the House En­ergy and Com­merce’s Over­sight and In­vest­ig­a­tion Sub­com­mit­tee that her com­pany has taken a series of steps fol­low­ing a re­cent in­tern­al re­port that found the auto­maker took more than a dec­ade to ad­dress an ig­ni­tion-switch de­fect. The faulty fea­ture has been linked to at least 54 ac­ci­dents and 13 deaths, and GM has re­called 20 mil­lion cars so far.

“I told our team as bluntly as I knew how that the series of ques­tion­able ac­tions and in­ac­tions un­covered in the in­vest­ig­a­tion were in­ex­cus­able,” Barra said Wed­nes­day. “I also told them that while I want to solve the prob­lems as quickly as pos­sible, I nev­er want any­one as­so­ci­ated with GM to for­get what happened. I want this ter­rible ex­per­i­ence per­man­ently etched in our col­lect­ive memor­ies.”

In re­sponse to the May re­port, GM has, ac­cord­ing to Barra:

  • Fired 15 em­ploy­ees iden­ti­fied in the re­port.
  • Re­struc­tured its “safety de­cision-mak­ing pro­cess” so that seni­or man­age­ment will be kept in the know about prob­lems.
  • Hired someone to es­tab­lish a com­pens­a­tion fund for vic­tims and fam­il­ies af­fected by the de­fect.
  • Hired a vice pres­id­ent of glob­al safety and 35 safety in­vest­ig­at­ors.
  • Cre­ated a pro­gram called Speak Up For Safety to en­cour­age em­ploy­ees to re­port po­ten­tial safety is­sues.

This last change was the most sa­li­ent for mem­bers of Con­gress at Wed­nes­day’s hear­ing. Last month’s re­port cited a lax cor­por­ate cul­ture with­in GM that gen­er­ated a “lack of ac­count­ab­il­ity and a lack of ur­gency” in ad­dress­ing the de­fect. Barra and the rest of GM, some law­makers say, should fo­cus on fix­ing that work en­vir­on­ment.

Rep. Bruce Bra­ley, D-Iowa, called the at­mo­sphere at GM a “cul­ture of ir­re­spons­ib­il­ity” and said the car man­u­fac­turer has “in­sti­tu­tion­al prob­lems much more far-reach­ing than simply fir­ing 15 em­ploy­ees.”

Rep. Di­ana De­Gette, D-Colo., the rank­ing mem­ber of the sub­com­mit­tee, said that by ter­min­at­ing em­ploy­ees, Barra has “only cre­ated more para­noia with­in the com­pany that people are go­ing to lose their jobs,” mak­ing them less likely to speak up about prob­lems.

Two hours in­to the hear­ing, mem­bers of the com­mit­tee con­tin­ued grilling Barra. The fixes she brought be­fore them may have been a good start in the in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to the re­calls, but they’re cer­tainly not the end of it.

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