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McCain Sees Loophole in Car Safety Bill

October 06, 2000|RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Congressional efforts to strengthen federal auto safety laws in the wake of the Firestone tire recall ran into more controversy Thursday as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) warned that a House bill could let auto makers escape punishment for misleading the government.

At issue is a so-called safe harbor clause in the House bill that would let executives avoid a jail term of up to 15 years if they correct misleading or incomplete information about a safety problem "within a reasonable time."

McCain's objections are important because Congress is running out of time to act on auto safety legislation this year. As Commerce Committee chair, McCain is in charge of the effort in the Senate.

"McCain believes the safe harbor provision looks and smells like a loophole," said Pia Pialorsi, a spokeswoman for the committee.

The clause--also criticized by consumer groups--was the focus of debate as the House Commerce Committee voted 42 to 0 on Thursday to send legislation to the full chamber. Several lawmakers who nonetheless voted for the bill said they were troubled by the provision.

Separate bills in the House and Senate would require auto makers to report early signs of potential safety problems to the government and would impose criminal penalties for misleading federal regulators or selling dangerous products.

Consumer advocates say the Senate bill is stronger, but 16 senators in opposition have put "holds" on it, blocking it from a floor vote.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said the House bill seems self-defeating.

"It says there are criminal penalties for someone who is misleading [the government], then with the safe harbor provision it's like a magic wand is waved and they are not subject to criminal penalties," DeGette said.

But the bill's sponsor, Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), said the controversial provision is needed to encourage voluntary reporting of problems.

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