The GM hearings: An important exercise in accountability

Our society functions on accountability. It represents a commitment to one another. The need to measure and report progress is a tie that binds us all.

Being held accountable for your actions means that you take responsibility, for the good and the bad. It requires that you operate an honest moral compass. At the end of the day, it all boils down to integrity.

In Congress we are currently witnessing one of Washington’s favorite pastimes: holding corporate CEOs accountable for their wrongdoing. While corporations need accountability as much as any businesses or individual, Washington isn’t exactly the beacon on top of the accountability hill. 

Sometimes these dog-and-pony shows come across to the public as disingenuous, and for good reason.

The GM hearings

In 2013, more than 22 million vehicles were recalled in 632 vehicle manufacturer-initiated recalls. That’s a lot of vehicle recalls that didn’t manage to spark intense congressional hearings.  

But over the last few weeks, General Motors has recalled 2.6 million vehicles and suddenly GM CEO Mary Barra finds herself in the congressional hot-seat.

What happened?  

Manufacturers are required to report safety defects or equipment that is non-compliant with federal safety standards to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration within five business days. In the case of General Motors, it failed to acknowledge a safety defect – faulty ignition switches – for at least a decade.

Documents show that GM engineers were aware of the issue as far back at 2004 and maybe even as early as 2001.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted reviews of complaints over the years regarding non-airbag deployment but without the crucial information from GM, they were unable to link the airbag issue to the faulty ignition switches.

As those years ticked by, at least 13 people have died because of the defect.  

Failures exist on many levels. GM failed to acknowledge the issue upfront, because allegedly replacing the part wouldn’t have been a wise business decision (read: too expensive). GM failed to disclose the issue to the NHTSA, which prevented it from doing its job of holding manufacturers accountable and keeping people safe. 

This resulted in the worst possible scenario which is death for over a dozen people. If we had to hold GM accountable and measure their progress, in this case they would receive a big fat “F” on their report card.

But along with the GM hearings in Congress, there is another story playing out in Washington on this issue of accountability: the Senate report on CIA enhanced interrogations.

The CIA misled the government

Corporations like General Motors aren’t the only entities that withhold crucial information from the government. 

This week we are getting a glimpse at the classified 6,300-page Senate report on the CIA’s torture program in the wake of 9/11. Last week I explained the CIA-Senate battle over compiling this report. This week we are learning what’s inside and apparently it isn’t pretty.

Here’s a description from the Washington Post:

A report by the Senate Intelligence Committee concludes that the CIA misled the government and the public about aspects of its brutal interrogation program for years — concealing details about the severity of its methods, overstating the significance of plots and prisoners, and taking credit for critical pieces of intelligence that detainees had in fact surrendered before they were subjected to harsh techniques.

Officials who have seen the document agree that as horrible as the content itself may be, another egregious violation is the fabrication of facts and misleading of people up and down the government flag pole. In other words, there was no accountability to the watchdogs and ultimately the American people. When you conceal evidence, make things up and take credit for things that aren’t warranted, it presents a real problem.

The problem becomes even more complex when you don’t trust the watchdogs. Who’s to say that the Senate’s report is accurate?  The credibility of the watchers also matters, and Congress is severely lacking in this department.  This is also what makes Congress’ grandstanding in these GM hearings seem tawdry.

It’s unfortunate that integrity is a fading characteristic among those in power. It’s hard to hold people accountable by our mutually agreed-upon yard stick if there isn’t transparency in what we are measuring.


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