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Congress duns taxpayers for Detroit's intransigence

Quieter than a Toyota Prius, Congress has piled on taxpayers again with a vote for a $25 billion bailout of U.S. automakers late last month. The money, in the form of loans, will be used to enable American auto companies to retool so they make cars with better mileage.

Isn't that just peachy?

Now we are asked to support the same car companies that have refused to increase their mileage numbers despite government pressure since the gasoline shortages of the '70s.

Instead, Ford, GM and Chrysler have spent four decades turning out millions upon millions of cars that essentially get the same mileage year after year. The Big Three naturally spends millions and millions every year lobbying Congress for its interests, and prime has been a fight against higher gas mileage requirements.

They've managed to buy the necessary number of our elected representatives to postpone application of most legislation requiring better mileage standards for 40 years or so.

I spent a few years as an auto company public relations executive and recall a culture where the last thing my company wanted to spend manufacturing dollars on was higher gas mileage engines. The word then, as now, is more power, more options, more glitz. What the hell, gas was cheap; or relatively so.

Those Japanese cars? They would never appeal to North American motorists. They were too small; they didn't have V-8 engines. Those Japanese cars? They had four-cylinder engines in many cases. Who would want one?

And hybrids? Electric cars? Hydrogen fuels?

Bah! Humbug! Give us a good ol' Mustang with a five-liter V-8, smoking its tires in the midst of a traffic jam.

How long has it taken the U.S. auto companies to see at least part of the light? During the four decades while Washington fiddled and we burned unnecessary billions of gallons of gasoline in an oil-short world.

The irony is that we the taxpayers should be financing the conversion of our native car companies to manufacturers of vehicles using the same technologies that they fought against for decades.

Then we'll be asked to support those same companies by paying for the cars twice; that second time when we dish out the extra bucks for the new Chevy Volt or one of its kin.

By the way, try to find a Volt in a Chevrolet showroom. The car is featured in nearly every Chevrolet ad these days, and yet is still a figment. It doesn't exist in the real car-buying world.

Is it a figment of my imagination that the U.S. car buyer is getting drive shafted once again? I don't think so, and will bet you my high-mileage Japanese sedan on that.

Paul Wieland is a professor in the Jandoli School of Journalism/Mass Communication at St. Bonaventure University.

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