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Mr. CEO Supplicant Goes to Washington

There they go again. Middle aged men with long faces sitting at a table with microphones before them and cameras …

There they go again. Middle aged men with long faces sitting at a table with microphones before them and cameras whirring on all sides. This time it’s the former heads of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Richard Syron, Daniel Mudd, Leland Brendsel and Franklin Raines  testifying before the House committee. The subject is the “orgy of junk mortgage development” as one contrite executive put it.  

We’ve seen this movie before. Just the other day it was the three auto amigos: GM’s Rick Wagoner, Ford’s Alan Mulally and Chrysler’s Bob Nardelli. The wire service photo of an exhausted Wagoner wiping his brow with his hand said it all. Submitting to Congressional testimony is right up there with the annual shareholder’s meeting or holding a press conference with  hostile reporters as one of a CEO’s least favorite things to do. 

These events are one part Hollywood and two parts Stalinist show trial where everyone has his appointed role in the theatrical production and the verdict is telegraphed well in advance. Undoubtedly the CEOs of the big three deserve tough questioning for having brought their companies to the precipice of disaster particularly when their counterparts at Honda, Toyota, BMW and other transplants are conspicuous by their absence as supplicants.  But you know the outrage by our solons in Washington is largely manufactured when people are huffing over CEOs arriving in corporate jets. No one seems to mind that House speaker Nancy Pelosi has the use of her own corporate jet-it’s called the U.S. Air Force. She has it on standby using it to go anywhere anytime and you and I pay for it. At least Wagoner only asks GM stockholders to pay for his. I didn’t get the voting proxy from Congress, Inc. listing military air transport as a corporate perk for Speaker Pelosi.  

It’s hard to have sympathy for an industry whose management has not only shot itself in both feet but has reloaded and discharged rounds at remaining limbs. Yet many of these wounds are not self-inflicted. Just once I was hoping that one of the auto amigos would push back telling the committee  that the federal government’s CAFÉ fleet rule, to name but one example of federal intrusion, has basically made it impossible for the auto firms to produce the small cars it needs to offer under the regulation  abroad at rates where the companies can make a profit.    

One does not need to be an apologist for big auto to find the baying for Wagoner’s head unedifying. Sure GM leadership made its share of boneheaded moves. But who among the committee owned up to the federal government’s complicity in saddling the industry with requirements that basically pit the auto companies against their customers? GM vice chairman Bob Lutz had it right when he let it slip that what Congress really wants is for Detroit to produce small cars that are environmentally correct but which Americans do not want to buy. Europeans buy them because gas is $9 a gallon. But Americans are not Europeans. They like driving Suburbans, Explorers and Jeep Grand Cherokees as long as gas is under $4 a gallon. It would be more transparent of Congress to mandate a gas tax to bring fuel up to those price levels if they really want to change consumer buying behavior.    

Forget having an auto czar. It would be refreshing to have just one honest congressperson  admit that what Congress really wants is to replace Detroit‘s product development decision-making with its own.  (For a look at what would be in store for prospective buyers recall the East German Trabant  made by Zwickau Automobile. And for those with more upscale tastes there’s always the Lada, favored by Soviet apparatchiks.)  

If only one of the auto chiefs stood up to the committee saying that management will admit to its mistakes if various Congressmen admit to theirs. And together they would forge a realistic industry work out with nothing left off the table. Now that would have been a Frank Capra moment. 

About J.P. Donlon

J.P. Donlon
J.P. Donlon is Editor Emeritus of Chief Executive magazine.