Lawmakers To Walk Fine Line In Toyota Hearings

The first congressional hearing on Toyota's safety problems gets underway next week. Toyota has production plants in several states, and directly employees some 36,000 workers. Thousands more are employed by parts suppliers. Lawmakers have to weigh how hard to push the company over the safety of the cars many of their constituents drive, versus protecting the high paying manufacturing jobs the company provides many others.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Congressional hearings into the problems that have forced Toyota to recall millions of cars promise high political drama. Next week's hearings will also show some lawmakers walking a fine line. Toyota has plants in several states and directly employs some 36,000 people.

Members of Congress will have to weigh how hard to press Toyota. They know many voters drive Toyotas, but the lawmakers also know the value of the high paying manufacturing jobs the company provides. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: In Buffalo, West Virginia, on the bank of the Kanawha�River northwest of Charleston, sits the Toyota Motor Manufacturing Plant. The sprawling facility produces the four and six-cylinder engines that power Toyotas, North American-built cars and trucks.

Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito knows the plant well.

Representative SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO (Republican, West Virginia): I've visited the plant numerous times, know many of the people that work there, and have always been impressed.

NAYLOR: Toyota motor manufacturing is located in Capito's district and employs over 1,000 people, many of them her constituents. She says preserving those jobs is very important. But she's also concerned with her constituents' safety.

Rep. CAPITO: There's a lot of people obviously driving Toyotas, and you want to make sure that on these hilly, snowy mountainous roads that we have the greatest quality product that can be put forward. And that's the goal of the company. So I think that is number one.

NAYLOR: Toyota has located factories in six states in different regions of the country. By doing so, consciously or not, Toyota has assured widespread congressional support. It's a strategy followed by other industries, says political science Professor Ross Baker of Rutgers University.

Professor ROSS BAKER (Political Science, Rutgers University): It's certainly a pattern that has been followed by the defense industry, which seems to have a knack for locating the components of weapons systems in 435 congressional districts in order to get political support for a weapons system.

NAYLOR: And support Toyota has. One of its biggest plants is in Kentucky, home to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. And Democratic Senator J. Rockefeller of West Virginia, who is chairing one of the Toyota hearings, has been an unabashed booster of the company. Baker says it's a delicate balance.

Prof. BAKER: They will try with a great deal of agility most times to sort of take a company like Toyota to the woodshed and administer a few sound wallops, and at the same time make sure that they don't go too far. They really don't want to antagonize a company which has provided jobs.

NAYLOR: Democrat Congressman Charles Gonzalez has a Toyota plant just outside his San Antonio district making trucks. It's one of the plants the company says it will close down for a few days because the recalls have slowed sales and caused a build up of inventory. But Gonzalez says he hopes to get in a few questions at the hearing next week and doesn't see himself as a company defender.

Representative CHARLES GONZALEZ (Democrat, Texas): And the reason for that is I think, you know, corporate America owes the consumer first and foremost the greatest duty of responsible behavior. And this is whether it's a company that is located near or in my district. That doesn't matter.

NAYLOR: On the other hand, Gonzalez says there should not be a rush to judgment about Toyota. Last year, the company spent some $5 million lobbying. And with the recall threatening the company's reputation and bottom line, it's stepped up its efforts to make friends on Capitol Hill.

The automaker recently hired new Washington-based PR and lobbying firms. And it's been bringing dealers and employees to the capital to meet with lawmakers, hoping a friendly and maybe familiar face will help make the company's case.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And we have an update this morning. Yesterday, we reported Toyota was looking into yet another potential problem, this one with the steering on the popular Toyota Corolla. This morning, the Washington Post reports that the federal government plans to launch a formal investigation today. The government has received more than 150 complaints about the 2009 and 2010 Corolla models.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.