While Congress Investigates GM, Washington Leadership Will Drive Around in Its Cars

Chevrolet Suburbans make up the vast majority of security cars for congressional leaders and the president, even as Congress grills GM over safety failures.

National Journal

If you walk around the Capitol when Congress is in session, you'll see about a dozen Chevrolet Suburbans — and one or two Fords — parked just outside the doors to each chamber, waiting for members of the leadership to exit for the day. The same vehicles make up much of President Obama's motorcade and were popular in the George W. Bush administration as well.

The popularity of the Suburbans as a mode of transport and security is oddly unexplained on the Hill. But the truly unusual thing about the decision to entrust the safety of many of the nation's leaders to these particular cars is that General Motors, which owns Chevrolet, is under congressional investigation over sometimes-fatal safety flaws.

Members of the House's Energy and Commerce Committee will hold another hearing with GM executives on Wednesday morning over the company's recall of more than 17 million vehicles nationwide this year. And if it's anything like the last hearing in April, it will be contentious.

The decision to haul congressional leaders and presidents around in GM cars is a difficult one to explain, as it appears that no one on Capitol Hill is aware — or, perhaps, willing to discuss — just who made that choice.

The funding for leasing vehicles for leadership goes to the chief administrative officer for the House's office, though a spokesman there said that they do not select the cars, initially offering that they were purchased by individual leadership offices. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said that his office didn't lease the cars, either. Over in the Senate, the sergeant at arms' office said only that the cars could be chosen from among any American car manufacturer, but did not say who makes that decision. A spokeswoman for the Capitol Police did not say who purchases or leases the vehicles either, adding: "The USCP does not discuss security related matters — information about our law enforcement designed vehicles is security related and security sensitive.".

In an interview, the chief administrative officer's spokesman wouldn't discuss who purchases the vehicles on the record but said that the Suburbans have become popular because they have been "deemed suitable for safety."

That's an interesting way of putting it, given that the automaker is under investigation for installing faulty ignition switches in its vehicles, which has lead to at least 13 deaths. Those issues have not been found to be present in Chevrolet Suburbans, however, although the company did issue a recall on the 2015 model due to an issue with the automatic transmission. The Capitol Police spokeswoman said that the department's Vehicle Maintenance Division "regularly ensures that vehicles meet safety requirements."

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who will grill GM CEO Mary Barra on Wednesday, are worried about a corporate culture at the company that has allowed problems with its vehicles to be swept under the rug. "It seems that it had to be intentional," ranking member Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said.

When asked about the irony of leadership being driven around in vehicles made by the very automaker his subcommittee is investigating, the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy, R-Pa., said he hadn't put the two together.

"I don't get driven around in one of those," Murphy said. "I drive a Ford."

This post was updated at 11:11 a.m. with comments from the U.S. Capitol Police.