Rep. Issa readies for lead role today as inquisitor of Akio Toyoda
Today will be a classic Washington political showdown: Embattled Toyota President Akio Toyoda, grandson of the company's founder, comes to Capitol Hill to testify, to apologize, to pledge reform of his Japanese auto giant.
His chief inquisitor will be Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the ranking minority member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Before Congress, he founded and ran the company that made the Viper anti-theft device.
Now that he's in Congress, when it comes to waste, fraud and abuse, Issa is like a dog with a bone: He. Won't. Let. Go. Recently, he's been described as Tim Geithner's tormentor. Prior to that, he was trying to figure out whether Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke strong-armed former Bank of America chief Ken Lewis into swallowing Merrill Lynch when he wanted to back out.
Now, it's Toyota and that company's troubles with sticking gas pedals and squishy brakes. And it's also the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who some believe let Toyota slide for too long. Issa will be after both of them today.
I interviewed Issa on Monday night, as he was preparing for today's hearing, which kicks off at 11 a.m. I will be live-blogging and tweeting it. Sign up for my Twitter feed below to follow. Here is an edited version of the interview:
Q: What do you want to hear from Akio Toyoda?
A: We would like to hear him say his vision of what will be different going forward. And, by the way with Ray LaHood, we want to hear his vision of change in a bureaucracy that we don't believe served the American people in the years leading up to his taking over.
Q: Do you think there's a piling-on effect happening with Toyota now? You've seen that the class-action lawsuits already are exploding and the number of complaints to NHTSA shoot up right after a new problem is reported.
A: I have some empathy for them. Having been an electronics designer, if you cannot duplicate [a problem] with a level of certainty and repetitiveness, you have a problem doing a recall. But if you appear to have a serious problem and it's brought to your attention and you do the checking and nothing happens, then we have to ask, "Did you really not find anything or did you choose not to tell us what you found? Or, in this case, were you hoping for $100 million in savings? Were you hoping to make the problem go away without admitting you made a mistake?"
Q: You're a rare thing in the Congress: a former businessman who understands economics beyond the level of retail politics. Is this lack of economic experience a problem in Congress?
A: I think we're light on corporate structure understanding, the understanding of what it takes to build successful systems. A lot of our members have some understanding of small businesses. They go into a retail store, they might go to a factory. But not necessarily understanding of the logistical complexity it takes to produce world-class automobiles.
Q: In Washington, we talk about "regulatory capture:" An agency that is supposed to be regulating an industry allows itself to be co-opted by the industry, and tends to look upon it favorably. Was NHTSA captured by Toyota?
A: Yes. Toyota did capture NHTSA, and they did it in two ways. They hired former NHTSA people. That's not unusual for Washington. It's not wrong if it allows for explanation and understanding of an agency. I wouldn't want to try to get a drug approved at the FDA without having someone who understand the FDA. Also, they sort of took advantage of their high-quality image to be in denial of actual events and explain them away.
Q: What do you think about Toyota's response to the crisis?
A: If you look at the statements of Akio Toyoda in Japan, he says it was growth and a lack of training that caused the problems. If you look at the TV commercials, it's all, "This was minor and we're taking care of it." Rather than, "Although we have a great deal of pride and make great automobiles, this is a speck on our glasses that kept us from seeing something so important."
Q: Address the issue that the same U.S. government that is issuing subpoenas to Toyota and investigating the company also owns 61 percent of its biggest U.S. rival -- GM -- and propped up its third-biggest U.S. rival, Chrysler. Address the apparent conflict of interest.
A: There shouldn't be a conflict of interest. There should be a legitimate firewall between safety concerns and investing in American jobs. We do have an ongoing ownership stake. We have to change the image of GM in addition to the actual quality and delivery price of GM vehicles. If Toyota sales are half what they were two months ago, on a competitive basis, it's not just GM but Ford and Chrysler that benefit.
Q: How's your relationship with committee Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.)?
A: Personally, good. Ed is a nice, affable guy. He has kept his word to me. It's been very hard to work with some of the people on his staff, though, some of whom report directly to [Speaker Nancy]Pelosi [D-Calif.].
Q: What do you drive?
A: I drive a BMW motorcycle, in the summer. An R1200. I also have a Lexus LS430 [in California]. My Washington car is a 2001 Lexus. My wife has a 2004 Prius here. And we have a Dodge Sprinter as an RV.
Q: Wait a minute. Your wife owns a Prius? Did she say, "Honey, should I be worried?"
A: She asked me about it and I told her I had checked the Vehicle Identification Numbers [to make sure the car was not part of the recall]. We're not especially worried.
Q: Do you think Tim Geithner is sending flowers to Akio Toyoda because now you're on somebody else's back?
A: [laughter] I would say that Tim Geithner is probably sending flowers to ABC, NBC and CBS because they're covering Toyota.
Follow me on Twitter at @theticker
February 24, 2010; 8:14 AM ET
Categories: Congress , Corporations , The Ticker | Tags: Akio Toyoda, Darrell Issa, Prius, Tim Geithner, Toyota problems, toyota
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