Nothing to see here
In his statement, Williams says that his business does indeed offer rental cars for use by customers who are getting their vehicles fixed as well as loaner cars.
“In these instances, the dealership only provides the convenience of a relationship with a nearby rental company, Enterprise Rental, and at a special rate that is given to dealerships established by an agreement between FCA and Enterprise: $30 per day, taxes included. The dealership does not mark up rental fees for profit.”
Williams, in his defense, said he sometimes loses money under the arrangement and that the passage of the amendment would have “zero bearing” on his business interests.
Shahan said dealers still benefit indirectly.
“They benefit, of course, by profiting from having the repair business,” she said. “And you can be sure that it’s built into the price they charge for the repair.”
Shahan said it was clear that the congressman was not interested in consumers.
“It doesn’t get any clearer that he was not acting in the public interest, he was acting in the interest of the NADA members. He doesn’t even claim to be acting in the public interest,” she said.
As to loaner cars, Williams and NADA were concerned that the provision would apply to those too.
“This bill will regulate a small business dealer with a fleet of five loaner vehicles the same as it would regulate a massive rental car company with hundreds of thousands of vehicles in their fleet,” he said in remarks on the House floor.
Williams has a fleet of eight loaner cars, given to people who are having their cars worked on.
While it is up to the committee to determine whether Williams did anything wrong, the congressman’s defense itself made some rather illuminating admissions regarding his relationship with the National Automobile Dealers Association.
According to the statement, the top lobbyist for NADA, Michael Harrington, was concerned about the effect the rental car act would have on his dealer members. He emailed Sean Dillion, Rep. Williams’ legislative director on Oct. 29. Dillion in turn asked J. Spencer Freebairn, Williams’ deputy chief of staff, to contact Harrington to discuss “issues surrounding” the bill in question.
“Mr. Freebairn did so, and by that afternoon NADA had sent proposed language for Amendment 819 to him,” according to the statement, signed by Williams.
Williams agreed to offer the amendment, which consisted of adding a single word — “primarily” — to the bill. The added word effectively allowed automobile dealers to rent vehicles under recall, unlike big rental companies.
He submitted the proposed change to the House Rules Committee, which determined that the amendment could be considered, and then Williams met with Harrington to “further discuss legislative strategy.”
So did the congressman use the lobbyist’s suggested language verbatim? That’s not clear. Williams has declined to talk to the Center. Harrington has not returned a call requesting comment.
Powerful lobbying force
Car dealers are known to be an influential force in Congress. A dealership exists in practically every congressional district in the nation. And these often-wealthy businessmen and women are ably represented by Harrington, who is well qualified for the job.
Harrington is former director of external affairs for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration under President George W. Bush. He also served as legislative director to U.S. Rep. Bob Franks, R-N.J. and deputy chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla.
Harrington lobbied the Houck bill for the auto dealers’ association, which spent more than $1.2 million on lobbying in the fourth quarter of 2015, including work on the rental car act. NADA has contributed $32,500 to Williams’ campaigns since 2011, according to Federal Election Commission records. Williams was first elected in 2012. The Almanac of American Politics calls him a “prolific fundraiser.”
Car dealers, not surprisingly, are major supporters of Williams.
The industry, through contributions from individuals and political action committees, has given him a total of $667,950 over his relatively short career, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That ranks him fifth among active and former House members, which is a little misleading.
Former congressman John Dingell, a Detroit-area Democrat who served 60 years, collected more than $1.1 million from car dealers and their political action committees. He’s number one. Joe Knollenberg, a Republican, also from Michigan, collected $990,162 during his 16-year tenure. He’s number two.
Republican Roy Blunt of Missouri, collected $818,723, and served in leadership positions in the House, which is a great way to attract big contributions. He comes in at third. And fourth place goes to Republican John Boehner, former House speaker, at $806,992.
Advocates and opponents of the amendment were particularly incensed that it was submitted on the House floor just before midnight, and slipped through on a voice vote.
Once the issue of the amendment was raised, the legislation went to a conference committee with the Senate. During that process, Williams’ amendment was tossed out. But the car dealers’ presence was still felt.
In the conference committee, it was decided that establishments that rent fewer than 35 cars would be excluded, meaning car dealerships would not be affected.
“It was a victory of low caliber,” said Cally Houck, mother of the young women who were killed. She won’t be happy until the loophole is eliminated altogether.
“I continue to look forward to taking them on again."
This story was co-published with the Dallas Morning News.