For politicians, the sphere of the personal shrinks as that of the political swells, until for some, the personal all but disappears. Then, even the choice of car becomes political. During the recent elections, one car loomed so large in the fleets of presidential aspirants that the manufacturer actually touted it as “The Candidates’ Choice” in advertisements that ran in Capitol Hill publications, such as Roll Call. Even more tellingly, the particular vehicle was unique to the left side of the aisle, and all were 2007 models, purchased after election season had begun.
CNN Money reports that Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) has pulled the “Clunker Culling” proposal from the economic stimulus plan making its way through Congress. The provision would have provided up to $4,500 in tax credits for scrapping a used vehicle with under 18 mpg and replacing it with a new car. The bill would have cost taxpayers up to $16b, according to CNN, which notes that lack of support from Republicans doomed the bill. Why? Apparently, “the provision required that the [new] vehicle be assembled in the United States.” Who knows, maybe common sense even had anything to do with it. President Obama did not take a strong position on the Clunker provision according to the Detroit News, but he is vocally backing $2b in battery development spending and a $600m purchase of fuel-efficient cars for the government fleet.
An increasing number of media reports are indicating that instead of a single “car czar,” Obama will appoint a team to oversee the auto industry turnaround effort. Current reports indicate that Democrat fundraiser Steve Rattner will likely take the top oversight position, but his total lack of (non-political) qualifications for the job is considered an issue. Which is where Stephen Girsky comes in. “They clearly need an adviser who knows the industry,” former Chrysler president Thomas Stallkamp tells Bloomberg. “Girsky certainly knows the industry, and he was close to both GM and the union.” And though I have questioned whether Girsky’s UAW affiliations are best described in the past or present tense, this 2004 presentation (PDF) to Original Equipment Suppliers Association is decidedly prescient. Especially for 2004. And this December 2008 presentation to UAW Local 14 seems to indicate that his recent advising stint with the UAW was a mission of truth and reconciliation rather than one of conniving and obfuscation.
Point three of Barack Obama’s ethics pledge to the American people is that “no political appointees in an Obama-Biden administration will be permitted to work on regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years. And no political appointee will be able to lobby the executive branch after leaving government service during the remainder of the administration.” Obviously that’s a high standard, and one that seems increasingly important as the lines between government and industry are blurred by rampant bailouts. And clearly not everyone makes the cut. But as Obama assembles a team to “restructure” the auto industry, the spirit (if not the letter) of his ban on revolving door hiring seems to be falling by the wayside.
According to the Detroit News, the leading candidate for Obama’s “Car Czar” position is a certain Mr Steven Girsky, who the DetN describes as a “longtime auto industry analyst.” Having advised Centerbridge Industrial Partners and JP Morgan on auto issues, Girsky is more than simply an analyst. Automotive News [sub] reported in October of 2008 that Girsky was hired by the United Auto Workers to advise on the proposed Chrysler-GM merger and as AN dryly put it “he may also advise the UAW on a possible federal bailout of the U.S. automakers.” Girsky was also a consultant to GM’s CEO and CFO for just under a year, leaving the firm in 2006. As of October 2008, he also served on the board of Dana Corp, a massive auto supplier firm.
Does Girsky’s experience make him incapable of living up to Obama’s high moral standards? Technically, no. Like Tom Daschle before him, Girsky is clearly a lobbyist, though he’s not registered as one (the de facto bright line rule for Obama). But having been paid by the UAW within months to advise them on bailout strategy, he’s also clearly not going to live up to the “no work on regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years” standard. And if he is appointed as Car Czar, it’s safe to say that he will be guiding regulations and money disbursements that are “substantially related” to the work he has been doing for the UAW.
But as with so many political decisions, the choice of a Car Czar will likely be decided on the lesser of two evils. After all, Girsky may be steeped in the cozy relationships between GM management, the UAW and the government, but at least he has industry experience. Steven Rattner of Quadrangle Group has also been named as a possible czar, but as Newsweek reports, his main qualifications appears to be as a Democratic fundraiser (he is married to the National Finance Chairwoman of the DNC) and media-elite insider. Sure he covered energy and economy beats at the NY Times back in the day, but there’s little to indicate that he would make an especially good Car Czar.
Meanwhile, for all of Girsky’s industry connections, some of his ideas are decidedly TTAC-ish. Like when he got AN Executive Editor Edward Lapham‘s collar up by suggesting [sub] that the Detroit Three might need to cut as many as 70 percent of its dealerships. He even seems to cause some consternation among his UAW employers, based on this post at Salon. And that might just indicate the kind of experience and perspective that Obama’s team clearly needs. After all, his Climate and Energy Czar Carol Browner told Automotive News [sub] at the DC Auto Show that there are “lots of clean cars out there and options for the consumer.” You know, because the OEMs say so.
Meanwhile, it seems that nothing will stop or slow the rolling tide of money that is about to slosh into the automotive industry. $2b worth of battery research money is said to be going into the forthcoming stimulus package, and the Senate just approved an amendment to the stimulus bill which would make auto loan interest and state sales taxes deductable from federal taxes. Whether Girsky or Rattner is appointed as Car Czar won’t likely make much of a difference in terms of the amount of money that will be funneled into the industry over the following years. The crucial distinction is whether experience is worth the possibility of a conflict of interest.
Obama’s strict ethical standards are admirable, but if his options for Car Czar are between an industry insider who defines the term “revolving door” and a candidate who is being considered solely due to his political connections, something has clearly gone wrong. I’m not sure this kind of compromise is what people had in mind when they voted for “change we can believe in.” But in this familiarly frustrating choice, at least Girsky has a record of taking stands on crucial issues facing the industry. If he can publicly explain his recent UAW dealings in a way that passes Obama’s muster, Girsky may actually be the least of the available evils.