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General Motors CEO to face gauntlet before Congress

General Motors

This week, General Motors CEO Mary Barra will testify in Washington about last month's recall for a defective ignition switch. The defect is linked to at least 13 deaths and 30 injuries. GM has known about it since at least 2004.

Testifying will be a test of Barra's leadership – she's been in charge of GM a mere two and a half months. But Barra may be unable to answer the most haunting question: Why did GM delay the recall for so long?

The question is on the minds of lots of customers, as well as politicians.

Liz Warners lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She's a volunteer coordinator for a non-profit. Her car, a 2005 Saturn Ion coupe, is one of  the 2.2 million vehicles recalled in the U.S. for a potentially deadly defect.

The ignition switch can abruptly turn off the car, disabling the power steering and the airbags. Warners won't be able to get the car fixed for several weeks or even months, after replacement parts start arriving at dealerships.

"I debate if I should go places sometimes,  if it's a little farther trip," says Warners, "because I don't want to cause any more stress or opportunities for failure."

The Ion has yet to turn off on her. So far, so good. But Warners knows the ignition can switch off if the car is jarred, and this was a bad winter for potholes.

"Grand Rapids is riddled with 'em right now and I live and work downtown and it's been rough!  So now I'm extra concerned about them."

The car can also turn off if there is too much weight on the key ring, so owners are supposed to take all the extra stuff off the ring.

Last week, GM released a series of short videos featuring the company's new CEO, Mary Barra, to answer some of the most common questions people about the recall.

In one, Barra says she pressed her engineers about whether the recalled cars are safe to drive.

"The very first question I asked is 'Would you let your family, your spouse, your children, drive these vehicles in this condition?'" says Barra, facing a camera and appearing to speak without a script or teleprompter.  "And they said yes."

Appearing in videos is one thing. Testifying before Congress is another. There's a reason it's called the "hot seat." Just ask former GM CEO Rick Wagoner. He asked Congress for a bailout for the company in 2008.  

Here's the interchange between former Representative Paul Kanjorsky and Wagoner during that hearing.

Kanjorsky:  "Maybe I'm dense or something, Mr. Wagoner, but I don't quite understand what the hell you just told me. Can you just tell me in absolute terms, how much money do you – General Motors – need to survive?"

Wagoner:  "Uh, Congressman, it's gonna depend on what happens with suppliers and markets –"

Kanjorsky:   "I understand that. Give me your worst-case scenario."

Wagoner:  "Worst-case scenario is the amount of the money would be significant. I mean, we have suppliers  –

Kanjorsky, talking over Wagoner:  "What is significant?"

Maybe Wagoner didn't talk to a testifying pro beforehand, like former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who's lost track of how many times he's testified. His advice for Barra: Be frank and honest, and don't go into it without practicing – lots of practicing.

"I practiced before a panel of people where they would put the most controversial, the toughest questions before me and I would have to answer them," says LaHood. "And if I didn't know the answer, I had to find it out."

LaHood says it will be a difficult experience, but it does not have to be purely negative for Barra.

"A witness before Congress should look at it as an opportunity to tell their story – to tell their side of it."

Barra does have some positive messages to convey.  GM is overhauling its recall procedures and the company is recommitting itself to safety so nothing like this happens again.

Unfortunately, with multiple investigations ongoing, or just starting, she may not be able to answer the toughest question of all: Why, when the first accidents, including one fatal one, came to GM's attention in 2004, did it take so long to order a recall?

Saturn Ion owner Liz Warners would like to know that, too.

"When I hear they kept it secret for a while, it makes me wonder about how concerned they are about their customers' safety, which is a turnoff.  So I would just ask the reasoning for not giving the information out right away."

Barra won't be the only one trying to answer tough questions.

David Friedman, acting director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, will testify, too.

He'll be asked why his agency let the many complaints about the defective switch slip through the cracks for 10 years.

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