Auto Lobbyist Reformed?

It’s a long road to Damascus, pal.

Katrina Leads a Lobbyist To Re-evaluate His Priorities,” read the headline on a Sept. 12 Washington Post story by Jeffrey H. Birnbaum. Birnbaum, with whom I once worked at the Wall Street Journal, is a gifted reporter who knows more about the lobbying world than just about anybody else, so I had high hopes.

The lobbyist in question is Frederick L. Webber, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and “a pillar of the association [i.e., lobbying] community,” according to Donald A. Danner, executive vice president of the National Federation of Independent Business. Webber’s epiphany occurred while he wrote a large check for Gulf Coast flood victims. “Political fundraising in this town has gotten out of control,” he found himself thinking. Webber proceeded to preach this gospel at various lunches and phone conversations with other lobbyists over the course of the following week. “I couldn’t justify making those $500 to $2,500 [campaign] contributions,” Webber explained to Birnbaum. “It just didn’t fit.”

But if Webber wants to draw a line from the world of politics to the flooding of New Orleans, he ought to think more about causation. Political fund raising didn’t cause Hurricane Katrina, and I doubt that it has impeded charitable fund raising to rebuild New Orleans and other flooded cities. I applaud Webber’s disgust on its own terms—he’s taking a step in a direction I’ve called for previously (see “We Are All Choctaw“)—but I don’t see how complaining about the never-ending pursuit of political contributions will help victims of this disaster or prevent future disasters.

I have another idea. It’s quite possible that the Gulf Coast flooding was caused by global warming. Even if it wasn’t, we must assume that in the future global warming will cause large-scale floods that are equally disastrous, or more so. Yet the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, like everybody else connected to the auto industry, opposes aggressive moves to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from automobiles, which account for one-third of the problem. They have resisted even modest efforts by the Bush administration, not known for its determination to impose regulatory burdens on industry, to raise fuel-economy standards. (See, for instance, this lobby disclosure form submitted last month, signed by Webber, which makes note of the alliance’s lobbying against the Automobile Fuel Economy Act of 2005. That’s a bill introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would require SUVs to match the fuel efficiency of other cars by 2011.) In the Sept. 19 New Republic, Gregg Easterbrook argues that Detroit’s recalcitrance is bad not only for the environment, but, with oil prices rising, for the auto industry’s own bottom line. The alliance’s commitment to reducing global warming pretty much begins and ends with an endorsement of Bush’s paltry climate-change program, which is entirely voluntary.

So, how about it, Mr. Webber? Do you really want to do something to prevent future Katrinas? Or, having been designated a Lobbyist Who Cares in the Washington Post, is your objective already achieved?