Several Lawmakers at Toyota Hearing Represent Automakers' Competitors

As if Toyota executives didn't have enough to worry about during testimony on Capitol Hill this week, CEO Akio Toyoda is facing down several lawmakers at Wednesday's hearing who represent districts containing auto plants of Toyota competitors.

At least three lawmakers on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee grilling Toyoda have a Chrysler, General Motors or Honda presence in their districts.

That local factor, on top of the fact that the U.S. government has a stake in General Motors and Chrysler after bailing out the troubled U.S. automakers, adds another heated element to an already high-drama hearing.

Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., has a General Motors plant in his district; Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, has a Honda plant in his district; and Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, has Jeep and Dodge plants in hers.

Any debate over the auto industry boils down to a debate over jobs. And just as lawmakers who represent states and districts with Toyota plants have rushed to the company's defense, lawmakers who represent areas with plants of the Japanese automaker's competitors have a stake in the company's future.

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Souder, though, took it easy on Toyota Wednesday during Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's testimony. Souder, acknowledging that he represents a "GM district," said it appears Toyota is being held to an "artificial standard" and that Congress shouldn't be scrutinizing only Toyota.

"No vehicle is 100 percent safe," he said.

Other lawmakers were not so kind. Chairman Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., said Toyota had "failed" its customers.

Toyota, which manufactures the kind of fuel-efficient vehicles U.S. automakers are striving to produce, has suffered a tremendous image blow this year as mounting vehicle problems forced it to recall 8.5 million cars. Lawmakers on Tuesday grilled James Lentz, president of the Japanese company's U.S. operations, over the unexpected acceleration problems that the company attributes to sticky gas pedals and faulty floor mats.

Toyoda, in a rare public appearance in Washington, plans to apologize for the problems.

Though that might not keep lawmakers at bay, one Texas congressman with a local connection to Toyota said he expects his colleagues who represent competitors to stay objective.

"I think they can separate it," Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said.

Cuellar used to represent the San Antonio Toyota plant that produces the Tundra until his district was redrawn in 2006. But he said "hundreds" of employees from that plant still live in his district and that he wants the company to "find its Toyota way again." He met with local workers from the San Antonio plant last week in Texas.

"Safety is first," he said, adding: "I'm concerned about trying to balance this with the jobs and the families that depend on Toyota finding its way."

Toyota has a huge operation in the United States, with plants in seven states and 1,400 dealerships across the country. As some lawmakers have slammed the company, others have defended it.

Four governors wrote to congressional lawmakers earlier this month calling the company a "valuable friend" that has been dragged through the mud over the recalls.

Its competitors are big employers too. In Souder's district, General Motors says its Fort Wayne manufacturing plant employs 2,700 people. The factory works on the Chevy Silverado as well as GMC Sierra trucks.

The plants in Kaptur's district work on the Dodge Nitro, Jeep Liberty and Jeep Wrangler. The Honda plant in Jordan's district employs 2,470 people, according to the company. It works on the Element, CR-V and Accord Crosstour.