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Editorial: Auto Bailout

The Big 3-2-1

The Big Three automakers are inching closer to the kind of overhaul that merits a taxpayer bailout, but their restructuring plans still don't go far enough and leave many questions unanswered.

General Motors and Chrysler say they will go bankrupt by the end of the month unless Congress lends them $25 billion in installments. Ford, which is in better shape, wants a $9 billion line of credit to guard against the economy's getting even worse.

Lawmakers who confronted the Big Three CEOs again late last week seem skeptical of helping, despite the risk of letting their companies fail. After all, the Big Three employ more than 1.5 million people, counting parts suppliers and dealerships. Letting the automakers implode would be a disaster.

Some economists believe the companies should seek protection in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, where they could buy time and go through the difficult but needed restructuring. But unlike the airline industry, other economists argue, the automakers may not come out of bankruptcy.

An already reeling economy could plummet to unimagined depths if any or all of the companies went under. No one wants to see the automakers fail, but the leadership of the Big Three hasn't helped engender much sympathy.

The three execs first came to Washington last month in private jets with no plan and just their hands. Two weeks later, the Big Three's combined loan request increased by $9 billion to $34 billion. Such a moving target doesn't instill confidence in the management. Not to mention, the combined market capitalization of the Big Three is way less than the billions they want from the government. In other words, you can buy the companies for less than the bailout figure.

GM's president said there is no Plan B, while Chrysler says it will be out of cash by the end of the month. That makes one wonder if the auto execs are irresponsible, inept or just bluffing.

The companies did show they are more serious about restructuring than they were two weeks ago. GM, for example, is promising to cut payroll, discontinue some brands, trim dealerships, and refinance its debt.

The United Auto Workers also is showing it understands the seriousness of the crisis. The UAW has offered to eliminate its infamous "job bank," which required the automakers to pay nearly 15,000 laid-off workers wages and benefits to do essentially nothing. The program cost GM alone about $750 million a year.

Labor also has agreed to delay the payments that the automakers must make into a new employee health-care fund. Those steps are promising, although they probably don't go far enough to ensure the companies' return to profitability. The Big Three autoworkers make $20 to $30 more per hour than their foreign-based competitors.

Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) argues that employee wages and benefits account for only about 10 percent of automakers' overall costs, and that labor has received disproportionate blame for this crisis. Perhaps, but the companies' pension obligations are still a heavy weight against becoming competitive again. There was no clear answer last week whether labor and management can resolve that issue.

GM also has pledged to reduce the number of dealerships significantly by 2012, a necessary but painful step. Pennsylvania has lost nearly 120 dealerships in the past two years, according to Casey. Even with those reductions, GM will have about four times as many dealers as Toyota.

Perhaps the biggest shortcoming in these announced restructurings is that there are no plans to replace current management. The executive teams at Ford and Chrysler are fairly new, but GM has been run by the same executives and board for years. GM chief G. Richard Wagoner made $24 million last year.

Why should taxpayers provide loans to reward the same management that allowed GM to drift into chaos? Congress should insist on new management as a condition of a cash infusion.

One idea that makes sense is giving the money in stages, with some government oversight to ensure the funds are spent properly. For one, taxpayers and lawmakers are getting bailout fatigue. Who's next? Many wonder where all the money will come from. The last thing they want to find out down the road is that the money was wasted.

Democratic leaders want to tap the $700 billion troubled-asset program that Congress approved in September, while the Bush administration supports taking money from a $25 billion program designed to help automakers produce greener vehicles. Assuming the automakers can survive this immediate crisis, it looks more sensible to preserve the green fund as a long-range lifeline.

Detroit's asking price is extremely high, and is a result of years of shortsighted management. Congress must require stringent goals for more fuel-efficient cars and leaner operations as conditions for this bailout.