Some Members of Congress have suggested developing a rebate program either to address effects of the 2020 pandemic on the automotive industry, including the temporary closures of all U.S. vehicle manufacturing plants, or as part of a long-range effort to remove older internal combustion vehicles with high greenhouse gas emissions from the roads. Rebates were offered previously under the Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save (CARS) program, also known as “Cash for Clunkers,” established in the Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2009 (P.L. 111-32), as well as under programs created by several states and foreign countries.
Congress enacted the CARS program in the depths of the 2007-2009 recession to spur the domestic auto industry, preserve manufacturing jobs, and improve the fuel economy of vehicles on the road.
The program was very popular: within six weeks of authorizing a $1 billion outlay, Congress appropriated an additional $2 billion for rebates. Consumers who traded in older model vehicles and purchased new cars with higher fuel economy received cash rebates on the spot. More than 677,000 rebates were processed, prompting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which administered the CARS program, to report shortly after the program ended that it increased U.S. GDP by a range of $3.8 billion to $6.8 billion; created or saved 60,000 jobs; reduced fuel consumption by 33 million gallons annually; and decreased emissions of carbon dioxide and related greenhouse gases by 9 million metric tons over 25 years. The CARS legislation included no requirements limiting rebates to vehicles produced in the United States or in North America; NHTSA found afterward that 49% of the rebates were used for U.S.-produced vehicles.
Subsequent studies by economists offered estimates of the program’s effects on vehicle s ales and production, employment, and GDP that were more modest. Estimates of incremental vehicle sales prompted by CARS rebates vary from 125,000 to over 500,000, depending on how many of the sales are assumed to have been pulled forward from later in 2009 or 2010. Estimates of the number of jobs preserved or created range from 3,600 to 40,000, and a study by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York concluded that GDP gains attributable to CARS were “negligible.” Studies generally agreed that CARS achieved one of its main objectives of improving fuel efficiency, but at a relatively high cost per gallon of fuel saved or ton of greenhouse gas emissions avoided. Some found that sales of more fuel-efficient vehicles dropped after the program ended.
The enacting legislation gave NHTSA 30 days to issue regulations and begin implementation of CARS, a timeline that caused administrative problems and eventually led to the hiring of 7,000 short-term contractors to keep up with the reimbursements to auto dealers. In addition, the Department of Transportation (DOT) Inspector General later identified issues with data collection and limitations of an information technology system that was not prepared for the volume of transactions.
Among the rebate programs offered in other countries, those in Japan and Germany recorded the highest transactions: 2.8 million and 1.9 million more efficient vehicles, respectively. After the CARS program ended, several states implemented similar programs focused on improving emissions of passenger car and truck fleets. The experience of two current California programs, where rebates are used to accelerate the replacement of older vehicles, may be informative should Congress seek to implement a vehicle rebate program again. The passenger car program offers rebates of up to $7,000 for the purchase of new, zero-emission and hybrid electric vehicles; no trade-in of an older vehicle is required, and benefits are targeted to lower income residents. More than 350,000 consumers have received rebates since 2010. The truck program seeks to replace diesel powered trucks servicing the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach with natural gas and electric trucks by 2035.
“Subsidizing Replacement of Motor Vehicles: An Analysis of “Cash for Clunkers” Programs,” CRS Report R46544, September 25, 2020 (24-page PDF)
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