For Congress, auto executives are 'lemons,' too

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 15, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, knows what he wants from the Big Three auto executives: They should bow down to stockholders and apologize.

That's one of the milder suggestions from Capitol Hill as to how Detroit's top brass should behave.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., wants them to resign. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, D-Ct., thinks that General Motors Chief Executive Richard Wagoner should "move on."

The public agrees. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll conducted Dec. 9-10 found that 43 percent blamed management and executives for the auto industry's plight, while 15 percent blamed labor unions.

The widespread disdain for the executives makes it hard for lawmakers to rally support for bailing out the industry — a key reason why talks to help the companies collapsed in Congress last week and will face trouble in January when the 111th Congress convenes.

The automakers had sought $34 billion in emergency aid. Congress whittled that to $14 billion, thought to be enough to keep cash-strapped GM and Chrysler from bankruptcy in the next few weeks.

The White House is considering whether to provide those funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, originally intended to help the financial services industry, or whether the Federal Reserve will provide loans. A decision could be announced as soon as Tuesday.

Whatever happens, the carmakers' supporters are expected to seek more industry funds next year, and if they do they're in for a rough time.

"People don't like rich people," explained Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., "and these guys are not only rich, but they've screwed up."

And they seem to suffer no consequences.

"They're part of the elite of the country," said Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, "and they seem to feel they don't owe anything to anybody."

Ironically, such anger was not apparent when Congress debated rescuing the financial services industry this fall. It wound up approving a $700 billion package, far more than the car companies have sought.

The reason for the more personal debate is that consumers have a very different relationship with car companies, said John Heitmann, a professor of history at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

"The bankers were only excessively greedy for the past 10 to 15 years," he said. "Detroit Three management has been inept and greedy _ with the exception of (former Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca) for about 50 years."

Iacocca became a hero of sorts nearly 30 years ago when Chrysler was reeling. The government provided $1 billion in loans and in return, Chrysler's management, labor, investors, suppliers, white-collar employees and dealers agreed to concessions.

President Carter signed the bill in January 1980. By 1982 Chrysler turned a profit, and it repaid the loans within three years — seven years early.

Heitmann said, however, that other than their affection for Iacocca, few remember the details of the Chrysler rescue. Instead, consumers remember the problems American cars have given them.

"Almost every American now has at least one horror story of a Chrysler, GM or Ford product that was a lemon," he said. At the same time, "these executives have earned huge salaries, bonuses and stock options at the expense of the little guy and gal who has fought to remain even for the past 30 years."

The pent-up frustrations spilled into the open last month when the Big Three appeared at congressional hearings and said they'd traveled to Washington in corporate jets.

This month they drove from Detroit for their Capitol appearances, but the damage already had been done. Constituent anger kept pouring out.

"If I had my way, all three of those guys would be in the unemployment line and I think that ought to be one of the conditions for us doing this," Clyburn told reporters at a news conference. "They need to be giving up their jobs, not just their packages."

And, lawmakers warned, that feeling isn't going to go away when they return Jan. 6.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, saw the auto executives and their companies "getting the money, and small business isn't getting the money, merely because we have not heard the names of the small businesses and because they're working hard to put food on the table . . . and because they don't have $50 million to spend on lobbying expenses."

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