The American auto industry is roaring back -- to K Street.
A year after President Barack Obama touted the success of the auto rescue in his State of the Union address, General Motors and Chrysler -- Detroit's two rescued automakers -- have rebuilt their lobby shops and are back spending millions to influence lawmakers on issues that can make or break their bottom line, like taxes and trade policy.
It might seem like a brazen move for the auto giants, since taxpayers took a $1.3 billion loss when the government sold off the last of its Chrysler stock last year. And the government is supposed to do even worse when it dumps the last of its GM stock in the coming months.
But it's become standard operating procedure in the post-bailout era: big banks, insurance companies and now automakers laid low on K Street for a time, but got right back into the influence game as soon as they felt they had the political cover to do it.
GM spent a combined $17.9 million on lobbying in 2011 and 2012, while Chrysler more than doubled its spending last year to $5.6 million. Even Ford, which did not take federal dollars, increased its spending on lobbying to $6.8 million last year.
"I still think it's outrageous that General Motors stole some $20 [billion] or $30 billion from taxpayers. I'm sure, to them, that's chump change," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was running for president against then-Sen. Obama at the time of the 2008 bailout.
While it's certainly legal for the companies that have received a government bailout to continue lobbying, it's not necessarily popular on Capitol Hill.
"Everybody's entitled to their lobbying -- it will probably be a good employment program for some Senate staffers," McCain quipped of the automakers' K Street profile.
McCain voted for the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program that allowed the Treasury Department to buy assets from financial institutions. But he joined other Senate Republicans to block a $14 billion rescue plan narrowly tailored to aid GM and Chrysler.
The government is expected to unload the last of its stake in GM -- 300 million shares, or nearly 20 percent of the auto giant -- over the next year at a significant loss. Ally Financial, GM's former finance arm, still owes more than $11 billion.
The Treasury Department has discretion over when to sell the position the government has in the automakers, but reportedly is looking to get a share price in the mid-$30s. GM's stock price would have to hit $70 a share for the U.S. to break even on the bailout.
Some see the industry's growing Washington footprint as a good sign.
One of the bailout's biggest cheerleaders, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), said the auto industry's growing presence on Capitol Hill reflects its recent success and is evidence the emergency aid was the "right thing to do."
"There's no question they're roaring back. We've saved a million jobs. They are back adding jobs," Stabenow told POLITICO. "The companies are making money, they are hiring people -- there is no question they're back."
And don't take her word for it, she said. At last month's 2013 North American Car and Truck of the Year Awards, GM's Cadillac ATS and Chrysler's Dodge Ram 1500 took home top prizes.
The changes haven't just been about overhauling their auto lines. They have also included a complete revamp of GM and Chrysler's internal Washington operations, bringing on a new lobbying staff.
"There's been an infusion of new faces and experiences throughout the organization," said GM's Selim Bingol, who took on the company's Washington portfolio in October. Those changes are ongoing. Last week, Bingol said he met with the company's roster of K Street firms, and he has also begun reaching out to lawmakers.
"I think people in general have accepted that the rescue of the company and the industry is the right thing to do," Bingol said. "We find ourselves now being able to be a little more forward-looking. I think we are in a position to really partner with policymakers in Washington."
The automaker, which has been plagued with the moniker "Government Motors" since the bailout, saw a dip in its lobbying spending in 2012, to $7.1 million from $10.8 million in 2011. Bingol attributed the downturn to the company tightening its belt in a tough environment, but said he expects it to increase as the market has gotten better.
Chrysler, which paid back the U.S. and Canadian governments the $7.6 billion it owed, has not just increased its spending but also has a new head of its Washington operation, Jody Trapasso.
"We are humbled by the progress Chrysler is making, but recognize that much work remains to be done," Trapasso said in an email. "Our Washington office has grown to support the company's revitalized efforts and expanded activities, and we're proud that several talented people have chosen to join Chrysler in Washington to help continue our transformation."
It's a stark contrast from 2009 when, facing bankruptcy, Chrysler terminated its contracts with outside firms and later shuttered its political action committee. The company has not restarted its political giving.
While Obama will almost certainly mention the automakers in his speech Tuesday, the Big Three aren't always on the same page as the White House. The industry treaded lightly immediately after the bailouts, but it did push back two years ago on the administration's plans to raise vehicle fuel-efficiency standards to as high as 62 miles per gallon by 2025. The two sides eventually came together for a still-significant rise to 54.5 mpg.
"We never hesitate to make our position clear," said Matt Blunt, head of the automaker's trade group on issues like currency manipulation and trade. "We certainly make those positions clear at the same time working closely with the administration."
And they're ramping up their efforts on Capitol Hill as well, looking to tell their story as a bright spot in the economy.
But auto lobbyists are likely to get a cool reception from many Republicans -- just as they did when they asked Congress for a $50 billion rescue package during the height of the 2008 presidential campaign.
Some in the party are still wearing their opposition to the auto bailout as a badge of courage.
"I'm against [bailouts] in principle -- banks, anybody -- it doesn't matter who," said Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, who was the top Republican on the Banking Committee at the time of the auto bailouts. "One of my first and proudest votes in '79 as a congressman was against Chrysler."
But all politics is local -- no more so than with automakers. And Chrysler will still find a handful of key GOP allies in states where it is building cars and creating jobs.
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who served as U.S trade representative under President George W. Bush, rattled off the auto industry's heavy presence in the Buckeye State: Chrysler has Jeep Wrangler and Liberty plants in Toledo; Ford builds engines in Brook Park; and Honda assembles CR-Vs, Accords, Acura RDXs and other models in either Marysville or East Liberty.
"It's not great news we had to spend a lot of money in Washington," Portman told POLITICO, "but it's great news that the employment numbers are better."
Michigan Rep. Sander Levin, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, expects Chrysler and other automakers to take a more hands-on role in trying to shape any tax reform package that might move through Congress this year -- especially provisions that affect manufacturers.
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