Congressional Cars ‘R’ Us

Congress has been obsessed with cars, car sales and car dealerships all week — and today is certainly no different.

The plight of the incredible and immediate shrinking number of car dealerships nationwide gets more attention today as Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) holds another Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing with the usual suspects of Fritz Henderson, CEO of General Motors, James Press, president of Chrysler, and John McEleney, chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association.

The dealers say they don’t cost the manufacturers a penny and the manufacturers say that too many dealers with large numbers of unsold cars every year cost them billions.

Very confused, I am listening to today’s testimony with pencil in hand trying to figure out just who the good guys and bad guys are here ...

Earlier in the week, the House passed the so-called "Cash for Clunkers" bill, designed to kick-start car sales by giving folks generous incentives to turn in their working clunkers and buy brand-new shiny models they may not need in the first place.

I know this is a little narrow-minded and doesn’t quite fit in with the stimulation spirit of the day, but I thought one of the main reasons we got into this economic mess was because we were living beyond our means, buying stuff we didn’t need, getting into debt up to our eyeballs and then begging Beijing to underwrite it all.

By the way, the clunkers bill passed the House the same day that President Obama was talking up his plan to get government check-writers on a "pay as you go" basis; a very good principle that is diametrically opposed to getting folks to take on more debt so they can buy newer cars.

I sure hope future anthropologists can sift through this public policy rubble and sort this all out someday, because I sure cant’.

Personal sidebar: I never really thought of my banged-up 1988 Volvo — or a 1977 I recently had to tearfully part with — as a clunker, and I took it as a scientific challenge and point of nerdy personal pride when the odometer hit 200,000 for each. I know it might be a little bit old-fashioned, non-eco-friendly and politically incorrect to say, but perhaps if the old GM, the pre-Fiat-ed Chrysler and Ford were able to build cars that could promise 200,000 miles, we wouldn’t be in this fix to start with.

Thanks for indulging that little bit of Friday-morning nostalgia. Felt really good to get that off my chest.

Speaking of this matter — of the dismantling of the American car industry as we know it — House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and fellow Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.), Frank Kratovil (D-Md.) and Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) held a news conference at the newly refurbished House Triangle media site Wednesday to discuss their Automobile Dealer Economic Rights Restoration Act.

Maffei and Co. want a little transparency in what they say is a wretched process that is needlessly shuttering some highly trafficked and profitable car dealerships from coast to coast.

I have to admit, I have my own questions here too.

With the national jobless rate approaching double digits, it seems to me that highly motivated car dealers and well-commissioned salesmen are exactly the kind of capitalistic shock troops we should keep off the unemployment lines, and on the retail front lines, during the worst recession since the 1930s.

So I am listening to this Stupak hearing with the car company honchos to see if anyone can tell me how closing profitable dealerships — that are actually selling cars — is going to increase car sales.

I don’t normally play in the conspiracy end of the sandbox, but this kind of thinking only makes sense to me if the manufacturers have a secret plan to jack up unit prices once consumers realize they have drastically fewer places to visit in the age-old American ritual of hitting multiple car dealerships and bargaining for the best deal.

If I learn anything interesting, I'll report back after today's hearing is over. Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts.