Publicly, Congress has done little on the Toyota recalls since a series of tense hearings two months ago. Behind the scenes, however, Toyota Motor Corp. has been waging a lobbying campaign to reassure lawmakers and shore up its brand while key members of Congress have been crafting broad legislation on auto safety in response to the recalls.
A draft of the legislation from April would impose several new requirements on automakers. The draft bill orders changes to vehicle braking standards, mandates vehicle data recorders that could be read by universal readers, and requires automakers to contribute information to a federal database intended to serve as an early-warning system for defects.
The two Democratic committee chairmen whose staffs are writing the legislation have not said when they’ll introduce it, and the bill could change.
“There are various ways we could go,” said one of the chairmen, Sen. John “Jay” Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), in a brief interview. Rockefeller is working with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, on the legislation.
Separately, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has introduced legislation that would bar former employees of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from working for automakers for three years if they would be communicating with the agency.
Rockefeller downplayed the influence of auto industry lobbying. “I haven’t had a phone call at all. None,” he said. But the lobbying is sure to pick up once the bill is filed, and industry groups are likely to take the lead.
Mike Stanton, the president and chief executive officer of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, a group that includes Toyota, said he “had a meeting with all of the Waxman staff and just let them know we’re very concerned about [future legislation]. We want to work with them.”
Stanton said his group has been developing positions on what they believe will be included in the legislation. One priority, he said, is for Congress to let the car companies figure out the best ways to meet any new safety requirements. “Tell us what you want us to do, but not how you want us to do it,” he said.
Meanwhile, Toyota has been meeting with members of Congress who have Toyota facilities in their districts, a Toyota spokeswoman confirms, and with “members who have an interest in our recent recalls.” A source involved with Toyota’s lobbying campaign who was not authorized to speak publicly said that includes members of the committees looking into the safety problems.
The company is “not in a bunker,” said the source. “They feel they have a story to tell. They have worked very, very hard to find fixes for these problems” by commissioning research and reorganizing internal quality-control efforts, and the lobbying strategy is to point to those efforts. The spokeswoman, too, said the company wants to give lawmakers information on its progress.
Toyota spent $5.2 million on federal lobbying in 2009, and lobbying records show that the company did some hiring on K Street during the past four months.
In February, Toyota added lobbyists from Holland & Knight; Michael Frazier, a former assistant transportation secretary for governmental affairs; and the Glover Park Group, a well-connected Democratic firm. Toyota had several other shops on the payroll before the recalls, including Greenberg Traurig. One Greenberg Traurig lobbyist, Ira Shapiro, is a former Rockefeller chief of staff. Even with the additions, Toyota trimmed its lobbying spending in the first quarter, reporting $880,000 compared to $1.29 million in the first quarter of 2009.
One area on which Toyota has yet to follow up publicly has been the creation of a “blue-ribbon panel” advising the company on safety.
In March, Yoshimi Inaba, president of Toyota Motor North America, said that Patton Boggs partner Rodney Slater, a former U.S. transportation secretary, would help lead the panel. Last week, the Toyota spokeswoman said Slater “is making progress on completing the board’s membership and we hope to have more information soon.”