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GM’s CEO Mary Barra returns to Capitol Hill

GM CEO Mary Barra Testifies To House Hearing On The Company's Ignition Switch RecallGM CEO Mary Barra Testifies To House Hearing On The Company's Ignition Switch Recall
GM's CEO Mary Barra.Allison Shelley—Getty Images

Mary Barra was on Capitol Hill again Thursday, but this time she was praised while others were hammered.

The members of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection repeatedly mentioned all the good General Motors’ (GM) CEO had done in the wake of the ignition switch recall scandal, but essentially told GM’s General Counsel Michael Millikin that he should be out of a job.

“I don’t see how you and [North America General Counsel] Lucy Clark Dougherty still have jobs,” subcommittee Chairman Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said to Millikin during the questioning. She also compared him to former Veterans Administration leader Erik Shinseki.

Shinseki didn’t know about the problems at VA hospitals, just like Millikin says he did not know about the ignition switch problems, McCaskill said, but “he’s gone.”

Barra, for her part defended her Millikin.

“I respectfully disagree,” she said. “I need the right team, and Mike Millikin is a man of tremendously high integrity.”

Other senators picked at Millikin as well, with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) saying that if Millikin didn’t decide to be more transparent, he “would respectfully suggest that this company is not well served by your continuing”

Barra, though, was showered with praise. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said: “God bless you, and you’re doing a good job.” Many other senators prefaced their questions by telling Barra that, while they needed to look back to see what went wrong, they were very happy with the changes she’d made since the scandal broke shortly after she became CEO.

Before any testimony began McCaskill and ranking member Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) started turning the screws on GM, setting the tone for what would be a sometimes-heated morning.

“People died, and millions more were put at risk because GM did not understand its own car,” Heller said.

The day began with testimony from Kenneth Feinberg and Camile Biros, who are running the GM compensation protocol, which was announced last month. The company will start receiving claims next month for those injured, or the families of those killed in crashes related to the ignition switch problem, but not those who only lost their cars, a point of contention for some senators.

“Isn’t a loss a loss?” Heller said. Feinberg was clear that his protocol is only applicable to those who were injured, or had lost a loved one, and that anyone who lost only property would have to go through the court system.

There was also significant questioning of Feinberg’s ability to be truly neutral, given that he is employed and paid by GM. Feinberg — who has also worked on compensation protocols Sept. 11 victims and victims of the BP Oil spill, among others — said that there would always be questions about his ability to be fair. The only way to combat them, he said, was to be quick and generous in getting money to claimants.