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Auto Folks Start to Rev Up

Car Industry Looking to Beef Up Its Lobbying Presence in D.C., Hoping to Land a Big Name to Steer Its Interests Into the Future

The nation’s auto industry is revving up its presence in Washington.

According to sources in the industry, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers plans to beef up its budget, add a number of new lobbyists and bring on a well-known figure to steer the industry’s lobbying effort.

The changes are part of a plan to “turbocharge” the trade group, said Gloria Bergquist, the chief spokeswoman for the association.

“We are looking to take a more visible public advocacy role,” Bergquist said.

The association has hired search firm Korn Ferry International to help it look for a new chairman and CEO who would serve as the lead spokesman for the industry in D.C.

Among the prominent names on the industry’s dream list of potential candidates are departing Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, former Michigan Gov. John Engler (R) and outgoing White House spokesman Ari Fleischer — though insiders believe each will turn down any offer.

The alliance’s new chairman would share some responsibility with Josephine Cooper, who now heads the office.

Cooper, who has been mentioned as a candidate to replace Whitman at the EPA, would become president of the association and would report to the new chairman.

“Our members think Cooper has made the Alliance what it is today, but they think leading the largest manufacturing industry in the world is really a two-person job,” Bergquist said.

Sources believe that Cooper would run the association on a day-to-day basis while the new chairman would focus on giving speeches and boosting the profile of the automakers.

“The new chairman will increase the Alliance’s visibility with the media and policymakers,” Bergquist said.

The trade group also plans to boost its $25 million budget and add to its 39-person staff in order to compete more effectively against other Washington trade groups.

The American Petroleum Institute, for example, boasts several hundred people in its Washington office.

The moves are only the most recent of a series of changes in the automakers’ lobbying efforts in the past decade. After all, it was just the mid-1990s when the automakers made a similar move to boost its Washington presence with a high-profile chairman.

“To me, it’s déjà vu all over again,” said Tim McCarthy, the head of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, which represents mostly foreign-owned companies.

From soon after the invention of the internal combustion engine, the industry was represented in Washington by the Motor Vehicles Manufacturers Association.

The group evolved into the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, representing the Big Three automakers — General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

During that time, the industry was led by some pretty big names, including Andy Card, the current White House chief of staff. Card served as Transportation secretary in the first Bush administration before taking the auto post.

During Card’s reign, foreign automakers were represented by the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers.

But in late 1990s, the association was forced to adjust again as the industry consolidated and a growing number of foreign automakers moved their manufacturing plants to the United States.

Ford purchased Volvo and Jaguar, General Motors snatched up an interest in Saab and, of course, Germany’s Daimler Corp. swallowed Chrysler.

Meanwhile, Toyota, Nissan and BMW began building cars in the United States.

“The industry had consolidated and the old distinctions about what is foreign and domestic no longer held true,” Bergquist said.

As a result, domestic and several foreign automakers founded a streamlined lobbying alliance in 1999 — the Association of Automobile Manufacturers — with a relatively small staff and budget to focus on environmental and safety issues.

The Alliance proved to be quite effective for its 10 members — GM, Ford, DaimlerChysler, Toyota, Nissan, BMW, Volkswagen, Mazda, Mitsubishi and Porsche.

In fact, the Alliance has yet to lose a lobbying battle.

Most recently, the Alliance helped put the skids on a massive increase in federal fuel efficiency standards.

This year, the Alliance is pressing for millions of dollars in tax credits for consumers who purchase fuel-efficient — but expensive — cars and SUVs.

“Advanced technology vehicles can be more expensive in the early years,” Bergquist said.

The Alliance is trying to advance a provision in energy policy legislation now on the Senate floor that would provide $500 to $2,000 tax credits for those who purchase the vehicles.

The House version of the legislation contains $600 million in such tax credits. The Senate bill now holds about $2.9 billion.

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