Portrait of a Citizen Activist Turned Bureaucrat

Joan Claybrook, formerly an important standard-bearer in the citizen movement, has been reduced to bureaucratic putty in her present position as nominal head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Claybrook’s situation is instructive both for her colleagues who also joined the Carter administration and for others in public interest groups contemplating a move into government. On paper, Claybrook commands hundreds of people who are supposed to implement auto safety and auto fuel efficiency laws. In reality, she has the right to hire or fire only ten of the over 800 employees in the agency.

Her authority is seriously compromised in other ways also. NHTSA, the auto safety agency, was established in the 1960’s by statute, not by administration decree, to emphasize its stature in the Department of Transportation.. Nevertheless, the Secretary of Transportation’s office on the 10th floor restricts unreasonably Claybrook’s efforts to activate an agency made moribund by eight years of Nixon-Ford.

For example, in April Claybrook wanted to hire a crack investigative lawyer-reporter to study the woeful conditions in the agency’s vehicle defects and enforcement programs and come up with intelligent recommendations. The Secretary’s assistants vetoed that decision. A few months later, she wanted to institute regular monthly news conferences. Again the 10′ floor, in the person of public affairs boss, David Jewell, said no.

However, those instructions were modest compared to her mistreatment in the case of the momentous passive restraint standard 208 for automobiles that was finally issued on June 30th. Secretary Adams relied on a small clique of advisers headed by a holdover from the Ford administration. For the most important decision on auto safety that she would have to defend during her tenure, Claybrook was relegated to a mere scurrying special assistant to Adams.

The outcome was a serious disservice: tens of thousand of American motorists will pay the penalty for the unconscionable lead time- four to six years- that the Secretary gave the auto companies. Not until the 1982 model year for large passenger cars and the 1984 model year for the small cars will air bags, passive belts or some equivalent safety system be required. The deadline for small cars is especially regrettable because they need these crash protections more than the larger cars. It is useful to recall that back in 1970, GM promised NHTSA that it would equip all its cars and light trucks with passive restraints by 1974.

According to the public docket, Claybrook had made a technical recommendation for an installation date for all cars during the 1981-1982 model years. But she was overruled by political considerations. Yet, Claybrook gave supine support for a 10th floor decision that significantly countered her position.

Thus, a very bad precedent was set for future safety standards. The long lead-time and phase-in by car size undermine the auto safety law. When standard 208’s leisurely compliance date starts coming due in late 1981, neither Adams nor Claybrook will probably be there to enforce the law.

Once again, uncertainty will afflict this lifesaving engineering standard, as well as other long overdue vehicle standards that may be issued in the distant future. The human casualties won’t be delayed, however.

Chatteled from above, Claybrook finds herself stifled from below. In July, Secretary Adams supported her intention to start the first dynamic testing of seat belts to learn how likely these belts are to fail in crash situations. But, the NHTSA staff was opposed. No testing is planned to date.

Claybrook worked in NHTSA from 1966 to 1970 and knows the intricacies of civil service regulations. However, after seven months, she has been unable to replace many of the top level Nixon-Ford holdovers notwithstanding their record on incompetence, lethargy or pro-industry bias.

Day after day, her close associates say, Claybrook works long hours in hopes that better days are ahead. She may as well be exhorting the rock of Gibralter to roll into the Atlantic.

Claybrook is dedicated. But dedication is not synonymous with either courage or performance. Moreover, dedication, infected by daily powerlessness, can turn into defensiveness and rationalization. And Claybrook is so powerless in her position that she can no longer even build power- truly the last redemption remaining for any government official.

When Claybrook headed our Congress Watch, she brought to her work conscience and ability. Now her conscience is shaped by the group on the 10th floor and her ability is stunted by the spoiled system within the civil service.

Speaking or acting contrary to one’s beliefs and convictions can be an unsettling single experience. But this practice, if continued, can become an acceptable routine. Former consumer advocates new in government must not be allowed to give credibility to bad decisions. By lending her name to legitimize the further erosion of an agency’s explicit mission to save lives, Claybrook may be on her way to becoming Henry Ford’s friend.

Looking ahead, there is little that Claybrook can uniquely accomplish under the circumstances. Claybrook simply is not free to exercise the full, legal authority vested in the office.

If for no other reason than her ability to make a much greater contribution back in the citizen movement, developing the citizen power needed for changes that count, she should resign her restricted position. As defined by the Secretary’s Office, the NHTSA job does not need her.

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