House Launches Toyota Investigation, Hearings Scheduled
Staff from the House Energy and Commerce Committee met with representatives from Toyota yesterday, reports Automotive News [sub], as Congress wades into the Toyota recall debacle. According to a letter from the Energy and Commerce Committee to NHTSA administrator David Strickland and Toyota North America Boss Yoshimi Inaba [letters available in PDF format here], the discussions with Toyota were characterized as “helpful,” but that “it left important questions unanswered, including when Toyota learned about this serious safety defect and what actions the company took to investigate and resolve the hazard.” Hearings have been scheduled for February 25, and the Committee’s letter to Inaba requests disclosure of all internal communication related to to the production shutdown, among other company documents.
Meanwhile, on the regulatory front, NHTSA spokesfolks tell BusinessWeek that “NHTSA’s been constantly monitoring the situation and investigating the issue of Toyotas and sudden acceleration, even back to 2007 when they had the other recall on floor mats.” Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood adds that he has “no criticism of Toyota on this. They followed the law, and they did what they’re supposed to do.” “I don’t know of another time a car manufacturer has stepped up the way Toyota has,” LaHood reportedly told Bloomberg. “NHTSA did exactly what it should’ve done, meet with Toyota and discuss this.”
The disconnect between the response from regulators and the response from congress speaks volumes about the impact of this recall. Though it hardly indicates anything like criminal behavior on Toyota’s fault, the shock of the reigning quality champ taking one on the chin has been a catalyst for the downtrodden domestic automakers (and their congressional investors/allies) to get as much mileage out of the debacle as possible. After all, there’s no downside to hauling Toyota’s bosses in front of a committee: the congresscritters get populist “looking after the consumer” cred, while simultaneously boosting the relative value of the government’s GM investment. Let the spectacle begin!
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I don't mind a little tuneup of the NHTSA from time to time. It helps keep legislators from getting bored and chasing hobbies that are not within their purview. thirty-three: auto safety is regulated by government, the financial industry as a whole was bailed out with combined Fed/Treasury intervention of somewhere around 1/5 of our entire GDP last year and MLB is unique among sports as it enjoys exemption from federal antitrust law. There are over 500 individuals in Congress and thousands of staffers. Be careful when asking, "don't they have something better to be doing?" Such a question may not carry as much rhetorical punch as you'd intend.
Having watched the Ford/Firestone hearings 10 years ago from a TV set in the Glass House, I remember them too well. The hearings didn't resolve anything but only served as a grandstanding platform for committee members. Many resources within NHTSA, Ford, and Firestone had to be diverted to preparing testimony. Since those resources could have been better used on the separate internal investigations within NHTSA, Ford, and Firestone, it was clear the congressional hearings only obstructed a quick resolution of the problem.