Laura Litvan
Bloomberg News

Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican leading U.S. House hearings into General Motors Co.’s recall of 1.6 million cars today, has some of the closest ties to the automobile industry of any member of Congress.

Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that’s no reason for anyone to question his ability to grill a powerful home-state employer, and he’s got the track record to prove it.

Upton led the probe in 2000 over highway deaths linked to Firestone tires on Ford Motor Co.’s Explorer SUV. That inquiry took on added relevance when Upton said he learned his daughter’s Girl Scout troop leader drove her to camp in a car with the defective tires.

“It struck home,” he said. Afterward, he drafted and helped pass bipartisan legislation creating an early warning system to boost communication between the automobile industry and federal safety regulators.

While today’s hearing into GM’s recall and ignition switch problem is designed to extract answers from Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra and U.S. regulators, it may also raise questions about the effectiveness of the law that resulted from the Ford-Firestone crisis. The hearing also will test Upton’s ability to strike a balance between the needs of consumers and those of a company that employs 44,500 people in his home state.

The committee’s probe will examine the conduct of both GM and NHTSA, the auto industry’s main safety regulator, regarding an ignition-switch defect linked to 12 deaths in crashes. It revolves around the response to reported incidents involving stalls, air bags and ignition switches since 2003 in cars including the Saturn Ion, Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5.

Upton, 60, was the lead House author of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act, or TREAD. The 2000 law boosted communication between carmakers and the government and increased NHTSA’s ability to collect data, with automakers required to report more potential threats such as defect claims or lawsuits, and recalls in other nations.

GM says its engineers discovered the ignition-switch flaw in 2001 while developing the Ion. Documents show GM was aware then that the switches could slip out of position, cutting off power.

Barra said on March 18 that she learned about an analysis of the stalling cars in December, weeks before she become CEO, and that she was informed of the decision to recall cars on Jan. 31.

Barra is scheduled to appear today with acting NHTSA Administrator David Friedman.