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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > The Secretary of Sell-Out

One of those little-publicized strug­gles, weighted with gravity for the safety of millions of Americans on the highway, occurred a few days ago on Capitol Hill.

Secretary of Transportation Neil Goldschmidt was busy undercutting the valiant attempts of conservative Republi­can Senator John Warner to ensure that life-saving air bags would be available on cars starting with the 1982 model.

Goldschmidt, whose transformation from liberal to reactionary viewpoints has dismayed and angered former supporters, was determined to be the auto industry’s proxy on the crucial vote by the House-Senate conferees. Fresh from a series of secret conversations with Pete Estes of General Motors and Ford Motor executives, Goldschmidt rushed to Congress to undermine Warner’s position by demanding a postponement of the passive restraint (such as air bags or automatic belts) standard for 1982.

He also opposed Warner’s specific production requirements for air bags during the 1983 and 1984 model years.

Warner was stunned by this sudden reversal of the administration’s position and Goldschmidt’s backdoor conver­sions -of Senators Wendall Ford and Howard Cannon, which collapsed War­ner’s majority. Stunned also were most of the House conferees and Joan Claybrook, auto safety administrator, who was overruled by Goldschmidt without even being informed and given a chance to respond.

The former mayor of Portland, Oregon, turned Big Business’ favorite boy, did not even consult with insurance and consumer groups, which were Advocating what they mistakenly thought to be a common position with the administration to preserve and strengthen the standard for 1982-1984 automobiles.

Goldschmidt was so busy lobbying for GM and Ford Motor Co. that he failed to oppose weakening of the bumper damage standard, a deletion of certain tire registration requirements and the imposition of a two-House legislative veto over future motor vehicle safety standards issued by his department.

It was one of the most deceitful and reprehensible performances by a Cabinet
secretary against his own oath of office and the safety of the American people. Sharing in this disgrace is his assistant secretary, William Johnston, a frequent go-between with the auto executives who were pulling Goldschmidt’s strings.

Because of Goldschmidt, million of motorists will not have the opportunity to protect their families with automatic restraints in a crash involving 1982 model ears. The transportation secretary refused even to support a minimal production figure lot air bags on 1982 ears, which the conferees would have supported. Consequently, the fate of the entire safety standard will be in the hands of arch-auto safety foe, Repre­sentative John Dingell, who will head the House Commerce Committee next year that controls auto safety legislation..

Under the Goldschmidt formula, bludgeoned through the House-Senate Conference and headed for House and Senate floor debate at the end of August, motorists may be offered air bags on one narrow model of cars at a wildly exaggerated price. Since the car companies control the price they put on the air bags, they can keep air bag production near zero if they don’t succeed in destroying the entire stan­dards.

In volume production, air bags for the entire front seat can be sold quite profitably for under $150. Compare this estimate, based on government studies and air bag supplied sources, with GM, Ford and Chrysler figures ranging from $600 to 5900.

GM’s flip estimates were multiplying by the month to reflect its intimidating purpose. The insurance industry, favor­ing air hags all the way, says that premium savings over the life of the car would cancel out the air bag cost. TI he issue no longer is auto safety. The issue now is Neil Goldschmidt, William Johnston and their shadowy auto industry cohorts. The entire sordid episode cries out for a congressional investigation.

Whether or not that occurs, Gold­schmidt should be haunted by the cries of anguish on the highway, which his cowardly behavior will ensure for many years. Unless, that is, his boss President Carter intervenes and tries to turn around the situation in Congress before the Labor Day recess.