Next week, Toyota’s president, Akio Toyoda, will fly across the world to appear before Congress in a bid to explain quality problems that since last fall have led to nearly 8 million recalls — and perhaps several deadly crashes. Meanwhile, the company’s main competitor in the domestic market, General Motors, is now largely owned by the U.S. government.
That’s prompted some observers on both sides of the Pacific to paint the controversy as a 1980s-style showdown between the Stars and Stripes and the Land of the Rising Sun.
But thanks to the realities of globalization, that framing misses a key factor. In recent years, Toyota has sunk roots, both economic and political, into the U.S., building factories in several southern and mid-western states, and forging close ties with powerful lawmakers — including some on the committees charged with investigating the company. Those roots are now so deep that, just as Michigan’s delegation reliably goes to bat for its hometown automakers, Toyota has its own, more far-flung stable of heavy-hitting backers. It’s now not so much the USA versus Japan, as it is G.M. America versus Toyota America.
Toyota claims to employ nearly 36,000 people in the U.S. directly, and around 166,000 indirectly through its U.S. dealerships — which number around 1500 — and suppliers. It puts its total direct investment in the U.S. at $17 billion, and says it spends over $29 billion annually on parts and other services from U.S. suppliers.
Perhaps more important, the company now has a slew of manufacturing plants in the American heartland: states like Kentucky, Missouri, Indiana, and West Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. For Toyota, these areas, with far lower levels of unionization than the UAW stronghold of Michigan, offer lower-cost and more flexible labor.
All this has created a dynamic in which some conservative southern lawmakers, often already antagonistic to organized labor, have become the unlikely champions of foreign automakers at the expense of the domestic industry. Last year, when Congress was considering bailing out G.M. and Ford, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) vociferously opposed the move, and backed a measure that would have required G.M. and Ford to bring their labor costs in line with those at Toyota and other Japanese manufacturers. At a 2006 ceremony to mark the 20-year anniversary of a Toyota plant in Kentucky, McConnell declared: “Kentucky is still reaping the rewards of its 20-year partnership with Toyota, and we hope to continue to do so for years to come.”
Kentucky’s other GOP senator, Jim Bunning, feels the same way. “Words cannot express the generosity that Toyota has shown Kentucky through industry job opportunities and community service,” he said in a 2006 Senate speech.
It’s not just conservative Republicans, though. As chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) will play a crucial role in investigating the various safety lapses of which Toyota is accused. Rockefeller has known Toyota’s founding family since the 1960s, and “was so closely involved with Toyota’s selection of Buffalo, W.Va., for a factory that he slogged through cornfields with Toyota executives scouting locations,” the AP reported recently. “By the time Toyota decided to make Buffalo its new home,” Rockefeller said in 2006, “I felt like a full-fledged member of that site selection team.”
Indeed, Toyota’s close ties to lawmakers stretch all the way to the pacific. Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) sits on the House Energy and Commerce committee, which is conducting its own probe of the recall. Toyota’s U.S. headquarters are in Harman’s district, and she and her husband Sidney owned at least $115,000 in Toyota stock at the time of her last financial disclosure, according to the AP. The company that Sidney Harman founded, and through which he built a multi-million dollar fortune, Harman International Industries, sells vehicle audio and entertainment systems to Toyota.
It’s worth saying: there’s no evidence that any of these lawmakers has favored Toyota improperly, or is likely to do so. After all, there’s nothing wrong with supporting a major employer in your district.
But it’s clear that when Toyoda goes before that congressional committee next week, he won’t be entirely in enemy territory.