It was just one word among 133,000 in the legislation. But that word, introduced by a congressman in an attempt to shield car dealerships from stronger safety rules, illustrates the ugly underbelly of Washington policymaking—and, for ethics groups, the shortcoming of anti- corruption rules.
Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX) did not commit an ethical violation when he exempted car dealerships from the safety rules, the Ethics Committee unanimously decided on Tuesday. Though he might have benefitted financially from the amendment he introduced—the congressman’s own car dealership would have been impacted by the new safety guidelines—it was determined that he didn’t do so with his own bottom-line in mind.
He couldn’t have been pressing his own financial interests, the committee ruled, because Williams himself did not devise the change. Instead, they discovered, he inserted language on behest of an industry lobbyist—his staff copying it verbatim—and then defended it with talking points provided by that lobbyist’s trade association.
Williams hailed the committee’s decision on Tuesday as a total vindication against left-wing, Soros-funded rabble-rousers. But despite ending in exoneration, the episode illustrates the fine line between ethically dubious legislating and outright corruption.
The Perfect Man for the Job
As Congress took up the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation [FAST] Act in 2015, the National Automobile Dealers Association grew concerned about a provision in the bill designed to protect car rental customers from faulty or unsafe vehicles. The trade group felt that the language would subject its member companies to the same safety standards. It went looking for help from a sympathetic member of Congress and settled on Williams
The Texas Republican sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and is a successful car dealer himself. He owns the Roger Williams Chrysler Dodge Jeep dealership in Weatherford, Texas. The Auto Mall, as it's known for short, brought in about $63 million in revenue in 2015. Williams told congressional ethics officials that the company was valued at between $25 million and $50 million that year. Williams’ children run the dealership day-to-day, but he occasionally sits in on management meetings, he told the Ethics Committee. His wife draws a small salary from the company.
That alone made him receptive to industry interests. But the FAST Act would have also potentially affected Williams’ bottom line. The original draft of the law stipulated that businesses that rented cars subject to safety recalls would have to pay a $21,000 fine per infraction, and could face penalties as high as $105 million for repeated infractions. The bill applied these penalties to companies that rent fleets of five or more cars. Williams’ dealership had a loaner fleet for customers getting service that consisted of eight cars—six Chrysler model 200s and two Chrysler model 300s.
The Ethics Committee discovered that Williams was totally ignorant of that language until a NADA lobbyist contacted his staff. “Dealers potentially have a major problem” with the language, the lobbyist told Williams’ legislative director. His deputy chief of staff spoke with NADA later that day. The group “wants us to introduce an amendment ...that would change the language,” the deputy chief reported back.
NADA had already taken steps to ingratiate itself with Williams’ office. Just a few weeks earlier, its political action committee had donated $2,500 to Williams’ reelection campaign, bringing its total donations to Williams for the year to $7,500. The group had also given him $10,000 during the previous election cycle.
Williams obliged the group’s request with seemingly no pushback whatsoever. NADA provided the text of the amendment and a suggested floor speech supporting it, neither of which Williams or his staff substantively changed. The eventual amendment was just one word: under the NADA-provided language, the safety standards would apply only to businesses “primarily” engaged in car rentals, not ones that did so parallel to another primary business activity—say, selling or servicing cars.
That exempted car dealerships from the rules, including the one owned by Williams. Indeed, at the time he introduced the amendment, the precise models that his Auto Mall dealership was loaning its customers were subject to federal vehicle safety recalls and, according to the Ethics Committee, “may have been required to be grounded under the FAST Act.”
Williams’ amendment was eventually removed from the legislation. But it was replaced with language that had a largely identical effect: it exempted companies with fleets of fewer than 35 rental vehicles from the law’s safety standards.
When his potential conflict of interest was first pointed out, Williams vehemently denied any allegations of wrongdoing saying his amendment would benefit thousands of dealerships, not just his.
“Not all automotive safety recalls are created equal,” he reasoned. “Dealers should not be forced to ground vehicles for a misprint or a peeled sticker.” At the time, Chrysler was recalling tens of thousands of model 200s that, the company said, might suddenly and without warning stall or switch into neutral.
But the language Williams used in his statement, it turned out, had been provided to him nearly verbatim by NADA staff in a talking points memo sent to his office along with the floor speech and amendment text. “The bill could result in the grounding of vehicles for minor recalls such as an airbag warning sticker that might peel off the sun visor or an incorrect phone number in the owner's manual,” it advised him to say. A section of the memo was headlined “Not All Recalls Are Created Equal.”
Ironically, it was Williams’ readiness to do the bidding of an industry group that exonerated him from the most serious potential ethics violations. It was evident that he had not acted primarily to advance his own financial interests, the Ethics Committee concluded, because the amendment he introduced and its supporting materials were provided entirely by a third party.
“Representative Williams may have had some financial interest in excluding his own dealership from the FAST Act, and should have recognized that possibility,” the committee found. “However, considering the totality of the circumstances, any such interest was not sufficient to establish an impermissible conflict of interest in this case.”
Who Watches the Watchdogs?
Williams, for his part, maintains that he acted ethically and with sound policy judgement. “Unless a Member is a career politician, like Hillary Clinton, they have probably had at least one prior job,” he wrote in his statement following the Ethics Committee report. “Should those Members excuse themselves from engaging in debate that affects the industries or sectors they know best? In my opinion, absolutely not.”
But for watchdog groups, the fact that Williams was acquitted is not so much proof that he did nothing wrong but, rather, that the ethicists in Congress are toothless.
“The problem is that Congress won't adequately police itself, and Members of Congress won't enforce the rules against one another (especially when it involves the majority party),” said Brendan Fischer, the director of the Campaign Legal Center’s federal and FEC reform program, a watchdog group that filed a complaint against Williams in 2015. “Just because the Ethics Committee failed to penalize Rep. Williams certainly doesn't mean he acted ethically.”