By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
There are a lot of places a politician does not want to get caught in Washington. One is leaving the scene of an accident. Another is coming out of a strip club. A third is in the middle of an apparent conflict of interest.
The charge that an appearance of a conflict of interest exists is, more often than not, used as a smear, as a way to blacken someone's reputation without having all the facts in order. It's hard to defend against, something on the order of deciding how answer the question "Hey buddy, when did you stop beating your wife?" in a way that doesn't add to your troubles.
An apparent conflict of interest, being largely subjective and based on the way an aggrieved party or crusading journalist interprets the facts, is a difficult thing to explain. Which makes it far more difficult to deal with than an actual conflict of interest--which these days is usually dispatched easily by admitting to it or reporting it, apologizing, and then seeking and receiving a waiver from the controlling legal authorities, which allows everyone to go forward as if nothing untoward happened.
For that reason, apparent conflicts get far more attention than actual conflicts. And it's a shame.
Take the case of Toyota. The giant Japanese automaker is now being investigated by several federal agencies and--thanks at least in part to pressure from the White House--at least one committee of the U.S. Congress, which are looking into allegations that many of the cars it currently manufactures have safety problems.
Whatever the reality concerning the performance of the Toyota vehicles, the investigations are themselves riddled with conflicts of interest. Thanks to President Barack Obama's multibillion-dollar bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, the agencies looking into the safety of the Toyota fleet are part of the same U.S. government that owns large chucks of the same GM and Chrysler that have been losing market share to Toyota and the other Japanese automakers for decades.
Sources who follow the issue suggest that Ron Bloom, the former White House car czar who is now a senior counselor on manufacturing issues, is at least partly to blame for keeping the spotlight focused on Toyota's troubles. It would certainly be interesting to take a look, through the Freedom of Information Act, at any letters he may have sent to Capitol Hill on the subject--a worthwhile project for an enterprising investigative reporter.
Also churning through the waters of the Washington rumor mill is the notion that General Motors' new corporate leadership is doing what it can to remind Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner that problems for Toyota probably mean more sales for GM--and more sales of GM cars and trucks mean the outstanding loans held by the federal government get paid back that much faster.
In sum, the U.S. government's ownership stake in GM and Chrysler makes it nearly impossible for it to act impartially in its investigation of Toyota, whose current difficulties have given U.S. manufacturers a temporary image boost. It's an aspect of the story that is at least as worthy of investigation as anything anyone is saying these days about the Camry.
- Check out our political cartoons.
- Become a political insider: Subscribe to U.S. News Weekly, our digital magazine.
- Listen to Alice Rivlin's podcast on the federal deficit and leadership in the next decade.