NHTSA Administrator Cliff Leaving 3 Months After Senate Confirmation

Dr. Steven Cliff, the Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), is leaving his job less than 3 months after the Senate confirmed him to the post (but there was a 16-month period prior to confirmation where Cliff served in the role in an acting capacity, and we’re not sure why the White House waited 9 months to formally transmit his nomination papers to the Senate).

Unusually, the move was announced Cliff’s once-and-future employer, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), on August 12. Cliff had held the #2 job at CARB (Deputy Executive Director) from 2017-2021, prior to his time at NHTSA, and is now going back to be Executive Director.

The CARB release sums up Cliff’s background: “For nearly two decades, Cliff was affiliated with the University of California, Davis, joining the school’s Applied Sciences department as a research professor, and later associated with the school’s Air Quality Research Center. Through the years, he established independent air quality and climate research programs and served as an approved program coordinator at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Advanced Light Source, a specialized particle accelerator that generates bright beams of x-ray light for scientific research.”

A career climate/emissions guy was always an odd choice to run the federal highway safety agency. Even though NHTSA shares responsibility for setting auto emissions standards, this has always been a minor part of the agency’s job. (NHTSA got stuck with fuel efficiency standards because, in the 1970s, the easiest way to boost fuel efficiency was to make drastic reductions in the size and weight of the car, which had significant safety implications.)

NHTSA’s budget request for 2023 is almost $1.6 billion. Of that, the CAFE rulemaking request is $27.5 million (a $12 million increase from last year), and CAFE has, at most, maybe half of the $15.3 million vehicle safety compliance budget. That adds up to perhaps 2 percent of the total NHTSA budget. In terms of manpower, it’s a little higher, with perhaps 40 or 50 NHTSA employees dealing with CAFE rules and compliance (if the full budget request is approved), so maybe 4 to 6 percent of the full-time equivalent employees.

NHTSA’s primary duties, by law, are “to reduce traffic accidents and deaths and injuries resulting from traffic accidents. Therefore it is necessary-(1) to prescribe motor vehicle safety standards for motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment in interstate commerce; and (2) to carry out needed safety research and development” (49 U.S.C.§30101) and “to assist and cooperate with other Federal departments and agencies, State and local governments, private industry, and other interested parties, to increase highway safety” (23 U.S.C. §401).

All of which made Cliff an odd choice to run NHTSA from the beginning. (Ed. Note: When you think about it, Cliff is the alternate reality opposite-land counterpart to Ronald Reagan’s first NHTSA chief, Ray Peck, who (like Cliff) also had zero auto safety background but who (unlike Cliff) was a pro-GHG coal industry lawyer.)

Cliff’s departure means that four of the eight major modal administrations of the Department of Transportation will be without Senate-confirmed leadership.

  • Federal Aviation Administration – the position became vacant when Steve Dickson resigned a few months ago; President Biden has nominated Phil Washington, who should be getting a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee in September.
  • Federal Highway Administration – after sixteen months, President Biden finally nominated someone (Shailen Bhatt) on July 28, who should be getting a hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in September.
  • Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration – your guess is as good as ours as to why, after 17 months on the job, President Biden has yet to pick someone to fill this seat.
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – the waiting process for a nominee begins anew. In the meantime, General Counsel Ann Carlson (another career climate change person from California) will serve as Acting Administrator.

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