- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2008

The country’s “Big Three” automakers have paid millions of dollars in lobbying bills and campaign contributions this year, hoping to curry favor with the federal government’s executive branch and with lawmakers they hope will grant them federal assistance.

Combined, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC spent more than $20 million lobbying in the first three quarters of the year and donated $1.3 million to federal candidates in the 2008 election cycle, according to Senate lobbying-disclosure reports and donation data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington watchdog group.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said late last week that the Senate will return Monday to begin debate on whether federal funds should go to the automakers, who say they are running out of cash as auto sales plunge. Senate Democrats intended to introduce legislation attaching an auto bailout to a House-passed bill extending unemployment benefits.

See related story:White House rebuffs criticism of its auto-aid plan

The House Financial Services Committee is scheduled to host a hearing with automakers on Wednesday.

The companies are seeking $25 billion in emergency loans, though supporters have offered to reduce the amount to win approval in Congress.

A White House alternative would allow the automobile companies to take $25 billion in loans previously approved to develop fuel-efficient vehicles and use the money for more pressing needs. A White House spokeswoman told the Associated Press on Friday it opposes a plan by congressional Democrats to include the auto assistance in the $700 billion bailout that Congress already approved to stem the credit crisis.

While $1.3 million in political donations is not significant compared with the dollars spent by some other industries, the automotive industry is one of the nation’s largest lobbying groups in terms of budget.

“Just because an industry doesn’t make a lot of contributions doesn’t mean it’s not influential,” said Massie Ritsch, spokesman for the CRP. “Obviously, the car manufacturers employ a lot of people, and people elect politicians … . There’s also potentially a significant ripple effect if these companies fail, and politicians are aware of that.”

GM has spent about $10 million on lobbying through the first three quarters of the year, while Ford has spent nearly $6 million and Chrysler nearly $5 million.

On Friday, GM said its lobbying efforts are proportional to the issues that impact its business, citing legislation such as the energy bill, passed last year, that raised fuel-economy standards.

“Lobbying and political action committee contributions are traditional and transparent means that industries, corporations and special interests have used to have their collective voices heard in Washington,” said Greg Martin, director of policy and Washington communications at GM. “Our political contributions also are directed to those who support a strong, competitive manufacturing base.”

Ford and Chrysler did not return calls for comment.

Not surprisingly, many members of the congressional delegation from Michigan - where all three companies are based - have received generous donations from the political action committees set up by the companies.

Rep. Joe Knollenberg, Michigan Republican, has collected $30,000 in donations from the three companies’ PACs in this election cycle. He has championed the auto bailout as “building a partnership” that would help create jobs in Michigan.

Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has collected $28,500. He said last week he was looking forward to helping the U.S. auto companies “re-emerge as a global, competitive leader in fuel efficiency and in new, path-breaking energy-efficient technologies that protect our environment.”

The automakers say the state of the struggling U.S. economy has dramatically curbed auto sales, sending the companies into financial trouble. If the government does not offer assistance, it risks seeing the companies fall into bankruptcy, prompting thousands of job losses.

Historically, the automakers’ political action committees and employee donations - companies cannot contribute directly to candidates - have favored Republicans, the party now resisting the bailout.

About two-thirds of the industry’s donations to members of Congress have gone to Republicans in previous election cycles. But this year, as the political winds distinctly favored Democrats, the industry has split donations about 50-50, according to figures from the CRP.

The companies show in quarterly disclosure reports that they’ve lobbied the House, Senate and the Bush administration on a wide range of issues, including passenger safety; asbestos; loans; energy and water regulations; and property rights.

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