February 9, 2010 at 8:52 am

Daniel Howes

Howes: Toyota's ties to Congress face their first big test

Japanese firm may be spared grilling Detroit automakers endured

Shelby, left, and Rockefeller )

We're about to see who Toyota Motor Corp.'s friends really are.

For the better part of two decades, the Japanese automaker used its steady U.S. expansion and sterling quality reputation to woo new allies in Washington and state capitals around the country. There are Democrats and Republicans. There are northern union states (Indiana and Michigan), southern right-to-work states (Texas, Alabama and Mississippi) and some in-between states (Kentucky and West Virginia).

Now, those ties are headed for their first real test. Toyota's top-ranking U.S. executive, Yoshimi Inaba, is scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to address growing concerns over the automaker's widening global recall scandal, what it knew and when it knew it.

Will the proceedings devolve into the kind of congressional inquisitions that grilled Detroit's CEOs at the end of 2008? You remember those, the precursors to the bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler and the comeuppance of the United Auto Workers starring such luminaries as Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Toyota.

Will mounting evidence that Toyota slow-walked fixes to "sudden acceleration" complaints and braking problems with its flagship Prius hybrid elicit the same kind of outrage so gratuitously heaped on Detroit, especially if potentially damaging evidence points not just to Toyota intransigence but to failures by government regulators as well?

These hearings and the government's handling of Toyota's problems will be a test, alright. They'll test regulators and politicians who've shown few qualms about squeezing Detroit's automakers even as they praise their rivals. And they'll test the Detroit automotive culture, pounded by years of competitive pressure from Toyota and others, as it strains to resist the urge to gloat over Toyota's troubles.

Gloat at your peril. For Detroit's automakers -- like it or not, accept it or not -- have spent years trying to become more like Toyota. They've implemented their versions of Toyota's production system; studied and absorbed its quality processes; envied its dealer network; emulated its rationalized product portfolio, focusing scarce resources on fewer models and fewer brands.

GM's manufacturing system essentially is the Toyota system. Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally's Blue Oval basically is modeled after Toyota. The global vehicles and global purchasing that contributed to Toyota's quality crack-up by spreading the problems worldwide are similar to what GM, Ford and just about everyone else in the industry try to do better every day.

And Toyota is a major employer. Not just in non-Detroit Three states across the country, but in Michigan, too. The Japanese automaker runs crucial research and development sites in Ann Arbor and is a growing supporter of charitable organizations when others aren't.

All true, which shouldn't be confused with the expectation that Japan's No. 1 automaker, long the industry benchmark, should be held to its own standard. The question is whether today's Washington, and segments of the news media that uncritically burnished Toyota's pristine image, can meet an expectation of even-handedness.

Because with the stunning exception of the California Assembly -- which last week passed a "Buy American" resolution for future state vehicle purchases in response to Toyota's troubles and its plans to close a Bay Area plant -- the automaker is heading for its congressional grilling with friends in high places.

West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, is a longtime ally who wooed a Toyota engine plant to his state in the '90s. The new head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, David Strickland, is a former Rockefeller staffer.

Shelby of Alabama is a strong supporter, among others. So is Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican who said he would be "a warrior" for Toyota when the company announced plans to build a plant near Tupelo. And federal regulators have been accused of favoring Toyota at the expense of Detroit, a tendency fueled as much by this town's self-destruction as Toyota's legacy of quality, financial results and green credentials.

How much any of that matters in the white-hot glare of congressional investigations, mounting evidence, sensational TV stories and a PR disaster-in-the-making remains to be seen.

dchowes@detnews.com">dchowes@detnews.com (313) 222-2106 Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.