Ranking the Players Who Make a Mark in D.C.

The Center for Auto Safety is the nation’s premier independent, member driven, non-profit consumer advocacy organization dedicated to improving vehicle safety, quality, and fuel economy on behalf of all drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.

Automotive News / July 12, 2004

WASHINGTON — Auto lobbyists persuade, cajole and sometimes battle not just officeholders but also representatives of other interests. Here is a top 10 list of people who matter to the industry in the nation’s capital.

Some have the power to save or kill good ideas. All have clout.

As in crash-test ratings, the players are assigned one to five stars, with five being the highest mark. The star system offers a subjective evaluation of their relative importance to the industry.

5 STARS Rep. Bill Thomas

Thomas, a California Repub-lican whose personality is politely described as "prickly," chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. His counterpart in the Senate is Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. They take the lead in writing the nation’s tax laws.

The committees produced laws that added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare and limited the amounts that companies owe their employee pension funds. Both measures are worth hundreds of millions to the Big 3 and to some suppliers.

The chairmen are negotiating a bill that could cut corporate taxes. It also would give tax credits to buyers of vehicles with advanced propulsion systems, such as gasoline-electric hybrids and fuel cells.

5 STARS Dr. Jeffrey Runge

The administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration upset many in the industry with harsh talk about light-truck safety. But his approach to regulation has been balanced.

Under Runge, NHTSA adopted a long-awaited vehicle rollover test and proposed revisions to side-impact crash standards. He is encouraging a voluntary industry effort to improve crash compatibility between large and small vehicles.

Also under Runge, NHTSA approved the first increase in fuel economy standards since 1996. The agency is attempting the first major revision of fuel economy program rules in a generation.

4 STARS Sen. John McCain

The Arizona Republican chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which handles many issues important to the industry. McCain considers himself a conservative, but has been tough on automakers.

Without committee debate, McCain inserted a list of mandated safety regulations into a major highway bill before Congress. He co-authored legislation that would limit greenhouse gas emissions.

4 STARS Spencer Abraham

If automakers have a champion in President Bush’s Cabinet, it is Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, a former GOP senator from Michigan. He has made administration policy of the industry’s long-term goal of replacing gasoline engines with hydrogen-powered fuel cells.

Research subsidized by the Energy Department on hydrogen, fuel cells and other advanced technologies is the key area of government largess that benefits automakers.

3 STARS Any senator from an automaking state

The proliferation of auto plants nationwide gives more lawmakers a stake in what happens to the industry. Under Senate rules, the minority party retains some power. Each senator can hold up legislation and propose amendments to almost any bill.

The list of senators from both parties who look out for industry interests and can do something about them is not limited to those from Michigan. It also includes senators from Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi.

3 STARS John Graham

He’s not a household name, but his White House role of regulatory czar is crucial to the industry. Graham’s official title is administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which is part of the Office of Management and Budget.

Graham champions cost-effective regulation. He forced NHTSA to adopt the industry’s proposals for rules affecting tire pressure monitors. A court overturned that action.

Graham is likely to play a major role in the Bush administration’s revision of corporate average fuel economy standards. His government biography says he "is best known for his scholarship on automotive safety and environmental policy."

3 STARS Joan Claybrook

Claybrook, president of the consumer group Public Citizen, has been around Washington since the 1960s. She was NHTSA administrator under President Carter.

Many members of Congress, some regulators and most of the media still seek Claybrook’s opinion of vehicle safety proposals. She was principal author of the safety rules McCain inserted in this year’s Senate highway bill. If that measure becomes law, regulators would have to impose the rules.

Claybrook also has taken on dealers. She has provided a forum for critics who say consumers risk being cheated at many dealerships, especially by the finance and insurance departments.

2 STARS Rep. John Dingell

After almost 50 years in Congress and a decade as a member of the minority party in the House, the Michigan Democrat may have lost a step. But Dingell, 78, remains the senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over many issues that matter to the industry. A lobbyist for automakers observes: "John Dingell is still a powerhouse on the Hill."

2 STARS Alan Reuther

The UAW’s influence may be waning, but it is still an important force in Washington. Reuther, the union’s legislative director, is especially helpful in getting Democratic lawmakers to listen to industry positions.

Reuther has teamed with industry lobbyists to defeat congressional proposals for sharp increases in federal fuel economy standards. He also worked with the Big 3 to curb the cost of employee and retiree health benefits – or, more precisely, to shift those costs to taxpayers.

Import-brand automakers are wary of the UAW because of its support for uniform percentage increases in fuel economy standards, if standards are going to rise. The import brands believe that would penalize companies that have done a better job of reducing fuel consumption.

1 STAR Dan Becker

Environmental advocates concede the failure of their efforts to get government to boost vehicles’ fuel economy standards. They consider the increase adopted by the Bush administration to be little more than tokenism.

But environmental lobbyists earn points for persistence. No one has been more persistent than Becker, a 15-year veteran of the Sierra Club who directs its global warming program.