The restoration of General Motors depends on the U.S. government, its savior, remaining a silent partner during the company’s emergence from bankruptcy. Taking an activist approach toward managing GM’s affairs would be disastrous — there are no car dealers in Washington.

Well, at least not technically. What is lacking is a cogent notion of how to revive the American automotive industry, as evidenced by the hamfisted attempts of Congress to influence the sector through shortsighted policies such as “cash for clunkers.”

Federal intervention into GM always promised to be dangerous. Yet so far, the results have been promising. GM’s bankruptcy has been approved by a federal judge. This is meager progress, yet progress, nonetheless. After watching this quintessential American symbol of technological and industrial power crumble under its own debt and mismanagement, a little positive news is awfully welcome — even if it’s only news that the bankruptcy plan looks solid.

The right role for Congress is spectator. It cannot legislate the industry back to prominence. It can, however, undermine GM’s potential resurrection by using its not-so-nice parts — such as the closings of dealerships across the country — as a platform for political pandering. Which is, of course, exactly what Congress is doing.

Legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate to reverse the 3,300 dealership closings announced by Chrysler and General Motors. The Auto Dealer Economic Rights Restoration Act is co-sponsored by a majority of House members, including Maine’s delegation. Sen. Olympia Snowe is a co-sponsor of the Senate bill. 

Closing these dealerships is estimated to save these companies $2.1 billion; yet those dealerships targeted for closing are arguing, through Congress, that the market — not the management — should decide which outlets should be shuttered. At first, that seems like an OK idea.

Until one considers that the market has already decided. The market targeted not only GM’s dealers for closure, but perhaps the company itself. Without the government bailout, the prospects for all dealerships, plants and the innumerable industries and jobs intertwined with automobiles were imperiled.

The matter is not how many jobs will be lost. The victory is how many jobs might be saved.

We want car dealerships — of all makes and marques — to thrive. A healthy automotive industry is a prime indicator of economic growth. What we don’t want is continued indecision about how it should be restored. GM and Chrysler must move forward, not become mired in debates about how to do so, especially when these debates pit two ancient rivals, Congress and the White House.

On Friday, the House passed language to restore the dealerships as an amendment on a larger bill to fund the Treasury. The White House, in response, has called this a “dangerous precedent.” We agree.

What is of concern is what happens when worse proposals emerge — such as closing plants. How this legislation about dealerships is handled could have grave implications for success or failure of future, unpopular, cost-cutting plans.

Our government should not be in the car business. It never should have been in the car business. But now that it is, it cannot let factions within itself — and legislation like this — steer the industry’s nascent recovery into a ditch.

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