Baltimore Sun

Mikulski plays minnows n' sharks

Hey, that's a great idea Sen. Barbara Mikulski threw into the Big Three Auto Bailout plan -- a tax break on purchases of all new automobiles from now through the end of 2009. She did this at the request of the Maryland Automobile Dealers Association. Here's some of Babs' populist rhetoric: "We've helped the sharks and we've helped the whales. Now it's time to help the minnows, the little guy, and the American consumer."

According to Mikulski's office, interest payments on car loans and state sales/excise car would be deductible for new cars purchased between Nov. 12, 2008 and Dec. 31, 2009. It would apply to families making less than $250,000 a year, or individuals making less than $150,000. Mikulski calculates that a family would save about $1,553 on a $25,000 car, and about $2,500 on a $35,000 car.


Tax breaks on $35,000 cars? Is there a $35,000 car that gets more than 20 miles to a gallon?

This is classic Mikulski, moving into a big story to score some points with the little people. It always sounds good. She's still gives great sound bites. Love that minnows 'n sharks bit.


But just remember: Maryland's senior senator wasn't always on the side of such populism. She cast a vote six years ago to give Big Auto a break, essentially a reward for the lack of future-think and arrogance that got them into so much trouble that their overpaid executives needed to fly to Washington in private jets this week to ask for a handout.

In 2002, Mikulski opposed higher fuel-economy standards that would have forced American automakers to nearly double the gas-mileage minimums (to a fleet average of 36 mpg) by 2015, and here's the reason she gave: "American women love their SUVs and minivans." Mikulski warned her Senate colleagues that, if they approved the higher standards, the wrath of "soccer moms" would be heard (more sound bite stuff), the insulting assumption being that soccer moms could neither see the shortcomings of the vehicles they drove nor understand the need to make them more efficient in the future.

Mikulski also argued -- as she always argues -- that her vote was about saving jobs, in this case at the now cleared-for-other-use GM plant on Broening Highway.
But all Babs did was let the auto industry off the hook. (At the time of Mikulski's vote in the Senate, Washington had not raised the fuel efficiency standards since 1975, the year before Mikulski first went to Congress.)
And all her new tax-break does is provide a stimulus for auto sales -- another reward for the American manufactuters who for too many years continued to make vehicles not enough people wanted.

It would have made more sense then -- as it makes sense now -- for GM to have developed more fuel-efficient and reliable vans instead of turning out Astros and Safaris. If anything, Mikulski should have proposed money to subsidize the retooling of the Broening Highway plant for transition to green vehicles attractive to an emerging generation of young, progressive consumers.
But that was never in the plan. Despite Mikulski's appeasement, GM made no effort to save jobs in Baltimore.

At the very least, instead of voting to reward moribundauto manufacturers, Mikulski should have been asking GM why it couldn't produce minivans and SUVs that got 25 to 35 miles to the gallon by 2015. With a 13-year lead time, one or all of the Big Three could have pulled it off. The National Academy of Sciences said it could be done, and Honda proved that cars and SUVs could lose considerable weight with no impact on vehicle safety.

There was none of this from Mikulski in 2002, two years before she had to run for re-election. Republicans opposed increased fuel efficiency. So did Babs. "I'm an industrial-strength environmentalist," she said, chumming for TV coverage with another sound bite.
Paul Sarbanes, who served virtually sound-bite-free in the U.S. Senate from Maryland, voted for the higher standards. The measure failed miserably, 62-38, and here we are . . .