As lawmakers grilled the chairman of Toyota on Capitol Hill Wednesday, the embattled automotive company's brigade of lobbyists, lawyers and media advisors was working to control the fallout from its massive recall.
Toyota's lobbying juggernaut, deployed at a cost of more than $5 million a year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics and federal lobbying records, provides a glimpse at the revolving door culture of the nation's capital. Among the company's 32 lobbyists are former aides to members of the House and Senate transportation committees, to key members of banking and tax committees, and to executive branch officials who regulate environmental and energy issues.
Other lobbyists have had helpful political ties. In the audience at Wednesday's hearing was Michael Frazier, who was a top transportation official under President Clinton, and who has worked closely with a number of Obama administration officials. Frazier told ABC News that he was working on behalf of Toyota. He declined further comment, saying, "I'm not the right person to talk to."
The company hired former Rep. Bill Brewster, an Oklahoma Democrat who helped found the powerful coalition of business-friendly Democrats known as the Blue Dogs. Brewster, as a former Blue Dog, is allowed to continue attending the coalition's weekly meetings. "Once you get in the kennel, they don't tend to kick you out" is how former Rep. Charles Stenholm of Texas explained it to Roll Call.
Access is critical during a crisis, said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, which researched Toyota's lobbying efforts.
"You need to get an audience to explain your side of the equation. If the person calling the member of Congress is a former staffer or a former member, it stands to reason their calls will be returned," Krumholz told ABC News.
Toyota has defended its spending on Capitol Hill, telling the news outlets that the company has had to increase its assets in Washington to deal with the "avalanche of inquiries" surrounding the recall.
Toyota PAC and Toyota Dealers Give Money to Politicians
The lobbying ties are not Toyota's only means of exerting influence in Washington. The company made hefty contributions to both the Democratic and Republican governors associations, and an analysis by the Washington Post found it had donated more than $135,000 over the past decade to members of the various committees investigating the company right now. The contributions came in from the Toyota dealers' PAC, from dealership owners and employees, and from staff at Toyota's U.S. operation, the Post reported.
Dealers have been particularly aggressive. Four members of the House Oversight Committee, which questioned company executives Wednesday, received checks from Toyota dealers -- Reps. Mark Souder of Indiana, Darrell Issa of California, Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., and Paul Hodes, D-N.H.
" It's probably going to be more expensive before this is done," Krumholz said. "They've got their feet to the fire."