Why does the GOP want to stop Cash for Clunkers?

Republican Senators want evidence of reduced fuel emissions. Since when did they become environmentalists?

Published August 3, 2009 3:04PM (EDT)

The big knock on the "Cash for Clunkers" program is that its requirements for participation have have been so watered down that a clunker-owner can get a $4500 rebate for trading in the old car for a new model boasting merely four miles-per-gallon better fuel economy. That is indeed pathetic, and leads one to a knee jerk reaction of agreement when reading in the Wall Street Journal that Senate Republican "lawmakers want to see evidence that the initial funding for the program will lead to reduced vehicle emissions" before agreeing to authorize an addition $2 billion in funding for the hugely popular initiative.

Wait just a minute! Senate Republicans want to see evidence of reduced vehicle emissions? Whatever for? Most of them profess not to believe in global warming, and have fought tooth-and-nail over the decades to resist any government efforts to increase fuel economy and cut greenhouse gas emissions. While I'm willing to believe that a minuscule handful of moderate Republicans, (paging Olympia Snowe) really do want to tighten the environmental requirements of the Cash for Clunkers program, I suspect most Republican opposition is really just obstructionism. Here's a program that is clearly having a stimulative effect, and they want to nip it in the bud -- because anything that the Obama administration can tout as a success is a failure for the GOP.

The automakers will announce their July sales totals on Monday, and early indications from Ford and Chrysler suggest that the numbers will be the best reported so far this year. Some economy watchers believe that that the auto industry was poised for a rebound that would have happened with or without the Cash for Clunkers pump priming. That could be true -- but it could also be true that the program's timing is perfect, giving automakers and dealers a real kick in the pants at exactly the moment when consumers were looking for a reason to buy a new car.

But here's the most interesting factoid reported so far, which, if true, indicates that the Cash for Clunkers program might actually be a success as originally conceived.

From the Wall Street Journal:

In one sign that it is working as intended, Ford sales analyst George Pipas said that among the company's models, the most-traded-in vehicle was the Ford Explorer SUV, and the most popular replacement was the new Ford Focus, a compact car rated at about 27 mpg.

I'm sure we will all be looking forward to hard data on exactly what kind of cars consumers are buying. A cynic might suspect Ford sales analyst Pipas of saying exactly what the government might want to hear about carbuyer priorities. And, in any case, UC San Diego economist James Hamilton writes that he is "not going to be persuaded that destroying productive physical capital is a way to improve the welfare of the average American." But if Explorer SUVs really are being replaced by Ford Focuses on the nation's highways, that has to be a sign of some progress.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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