Congress Must Push Auto Makers For Better Fuel Efficiency

The honeymoon is over.

For 44 years, I have owned and driven an unbroken line of American cars (various products of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler). It began in the summer of 1962 when my fathered bought me a used Plymouth for $500 as I started my junior year in college.

But when my wife and I recently went shopping for a new car, we joined millions of Americans and purchased a new hybrid made by a Japanese company.

I did not come to this decision easily. The last automobile I had purchased had been a 1999 Jeep Cherokee, a wonderful little SUV which unfortunately only gets 14 miles per gallon.

As gas prices headed to $3.00 a gallon this spring, I decided it was time to take fuel efficiency into account. I wanted to help our country conserve energy and, like millions of others, was tired of paying $45 to $50 to fill up my tank every week.

Further, the concept of buying a hybrid was very appealing because of the low amount of air polluting emissions they produce.

Our first instinct was to check out domestic hybrids. Ford and Mercury have entries in the hybrid derby. They have decent styling but lag significantly behind in fuel efficiency. They register fuel efficiency in the 30 miles per gallon range. Their chief Japanese competitors average between 50 and 60 miles per gallon, according to government tests (which may overstate mileage somewhat.)

Other U.S. auto makers are working on hybrid models but they haven’t yet hit the auto showrooms.

And so, we purchased a Japanese model. It came with a full tank of gas, which lasted well into the second week of driving.

So what are we to do as a country to encourage consumers to once again buy American?

Congress should immediately take action on a proposal made by President Bush to require U.S. car companies to produce more fuel efficient cars. We established average fleet mileage standards some years ago at 27.5 miles per gallon. Efforts have been made repeatedly in Congress to increase these standards but have been rejected on a bipartisan basis, in part because they would require significant investments by cash-strapped domestic companies.

The President has asked Congress to give him the authority to raise the standards. He was correct to make the request; Congress should pass it promptly and the president should order new fuel efficiency standards for American autos. If American manufacturers need government assistance in covering re-tooling expenses, then we should consider giving it to them, either through tax relief or low interest loans. If American firms don’t change with the times, we run the risk of losing one of our last major sources of manufacturing jobs.

The president also has asked that tax credits for the purchase of hybrid cars be expanded. That’s good environmental policy but it won’t help preserve American jobs if our domestic manufacturers don’t make a broader line of hybrids and also convert to more fuel efficient cars.

American consumers also have a role to play. They should demand that American manufacturers produce more fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly cars. The market place does work and U.S. auto makers hopefully will respond if car purchasers make it clear they want a better product.

The free enterprise system is the bedrock of our economic system. Sometimes free enterprise needs a gentle nudge from government. This clearly is one of those times.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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