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Politicians in no place to lecture GM on ‘failure’

February 28, 2013

Politicians in no place to lecture GM on ‘failure’
By DANIEL HOWES

Now that the Treasury Department is peddling its remaining General Motors Co. shares on the open market, I suspect I speak for more than a few people when I say, “please hurry up.”

Why? Because the inane browbeating coming from Republicans in Congress is absurd, starting most recently with Michigan’s own Kerry Bentivolio. He’s the new lawmaker from Milford who this week took the opportunity of a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the compensation for GM executives to wonder why “we … are rewarding failure?”

Let’s be precise, Congressman, a rare commodity in the gotcha culture of public hearings on Capitol Hill: you aren’t.

None of the people leading GM today — not Chairman Dan Akerson, not Vice Chairman Steve Girsky, not Chief Financial Office Dan Amman, not a majority of GM’s outside directors was at the wheel when Detroit’s No. 1 automaker careened in the federally induced bankruptcy.

They didn’t beg Congress for an embarrassing bailout in the fall of 2008. They didn’t refuse to enlist bankruptcy counsel until Thanksgiving of that year. They didn’t deny reality and proffer insufficient “viability plans” to the workout guys staffing President Obama’s auto task force.

They’re working to pick up the pieces — when they aren’t, that is, patiently enduring yet one more rhetorical bludgeoning because of their predecessors’ decision to take $49.5 billion from Uncle Sugar at Treasury to avert the largest industrial collapse in American history. Case in point:

“Taxpayer money should not be used to enrich the executives of these companies,” Bentivolio said. “I don’t understand how we can do this: reward people for failure.”

This again? You’d think a guy whose district includes GM’s mammoth proving ground in Milford would understand a few salient facts that do, admittedly, muck up the narrative favored on the right, willfully misinformed as some of it is:

That GM, since emerging from bankruptcy, has booked billions in profits under its “failed” management team; that the new GM brass is not the old GM brass; that the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric car was conceived and engineered before Obama even announced his bid for president; that the compensation of Akerson & Co. tracks far behind their peers at they-didn’t-take-a-bailout Ford Motor Co.

No, they didn’t, and neither did the top people running GM today. That’s why they are running GM today, not guys named Wagoner, Henderson and Lutz, and not most of the cadre of fifty- and sixtysomething GM lifers now plying their expertise in other worthy endeavors.

Members of Congress (see also Rep. Darrel Issa, the California Republican who heads the oversight committee) from either party are in no position to lecture the country about “rewarding failure” when what passes for leadership in Washington today is days away from the governmental meat axe known as “sequester.”

In the annals of bad ideas whose time has come, automatic spending cuts rank right up there with GM’s botched diesel engine experiment of the 1970s and its cartoonish Pontiac Aztek a generation later. Anyone with connections to those laughers has scant credibility to offer lectures on rewarding failure.

But in today’s Washington, no one claims responsibility for bad ideas. Not the president, whose people pushed the sequester in the 2011 budget negotiations above the nauseated objections of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Not congressional Republicans, who blame the president for initiating the sequester while conveniently ignoring the fact they voted for it.

Sequester hysteria is an epic embarrassment to the president and the nation’s elected leaders, all of whom seem incapable of being embarrassed by the self-induced parade of irresponsible flailing. That’s because Washington is in the business of failing.

The Obama administration blows billions on speculative investments in green-energy and battery companies, loses many to bankruptcy, scandal or the Chinese, and the president says we need to do more. Republicans say they won’t agree to tax increases until they agree to tax increases, and continually lambast an auto bailout backed by the last Republican in the Oval Office.

The federal bailout of GM did not come without a cost. Taxpayers are likely to lose roughly $12 billion on their investment; dealers lost their dealerships, communities lost auto plants, thousands of employees lost their jobs.

That, and more, are true, too. So is the fact that taking money from taxpayers makes a company a political target — for a long time to come.

daniel.howes@detroitnews.com

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