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Two sets of rules. Politicians skate while auto makers get punished.

Jul 30, 2016

Judging by this year’s wild campaign, accountability is a foreign concept in presidential politics. But not in, say, the auto industry.

Ask Volkswagen AG. The $14 billion price tag for its diesel deception is creeping closer to $20 billion. And new lawsuits from three states say knowledge of the long-running global fraud runs all the way to the office of the new CEO. What a surprise.

Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News

Ask Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. Following battles with federal safety regulators, the automaker’s Auburn Hills-based arm now is under investigation for falsifying monthly sales numbers to improve its performance.

Ask General Motors Co. It paid $900 million to settle a federal probe into a faulty ignition-switch scandal blamed for at least 120 deaths. Now a federal judge says the automaker’s 2009 bankruptcy cannot be used as a shield against more ignition-switch lawsuits.

That’s accountability. Official tolerance of industry malfeasance is evaporating. Muscular regulatory and legal forces are rejecting the coziness of the past. They’re determined to prosecute dishonesty even more sharply than mere technical incompetence.

The bottom line is that lying and dissembling in today’s auto industry is exacting steep prices in dollars, brand equity and corporate reputation…and changing how the companies operate.

Not so in presidential politics, which is why this year’s race is animated by complaints that “The System is Rigged.”

From the left and the right come charges that there are two sets of rules, and evidence suggests the big people with the right connections and, of course, the right intentions seem never to get punished.

Not the Wall Street bankers blamed for the global financial meltdown. It claimed jobs, homes and the retirement savings of millions, but it didn’t deliver high-profile prosecutions…much less jail time.

Not a former secretary of state who passed government secrets through unprotected servers. In her zeal to shield her correspondence from prying journalists and partisan hacks, Hillary Clinton exposed classified information to global adversaries.

Not Michigan bureaucrats. Decisions by the state Department of Environmental Quality more than two years ago tainted the city of Flint’s water supply with lead. Only one person actually has been officially fired.

Not the Democratic National Committee. Courtesy of WikiLeaks, supporters of Bernie Sanders now have documentary proof the DNC worked back channels to sink the Vermont Senator’s challenge to Clinton.

The price for all that lying and dissembling ain’t what it is for the auto industry. That’s because there really are two sets of rules, and only one of them demands accountability.

That’s wrong. It’s why Republicans and Democrats have mismanaged the furies roiling their respective bases. Party leaders are proving the last to realize their total lack of accountability is destroying credibility with their own people.

There are no federal regulators to demand a price for political malpractice and self-dealing. There’s no one to levy fines on baldly dishonest politicians and staffers like regulators can hand to automakers.

Only the ballot box can exact a price for dishonesty and cronyism. Come November, it should.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.