But the campaign on behalf of the dealers is also providing a test of one of the central criticisms of the government’s intrusion into the operations of many companies, from banks to insurers to auto giants. Even as they talk tough about the mismanagement of car companies, can members of Congress withstand political pressure and allow Chrysler and G.M. to make tough economic decisions that might hurt their own constituents?
For instance, Representative Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who heads the House Financial Services Committee, came under fire for intervening with G.M. to keep a parts distribution center open in his district, preserving about 90 jobs for another year. Critics said Mr. Frank used his sway as an overseer of federal bailout money to intervene in the company’s decision-making.
Mr. Frank said that he made a common-sense argument to keep the center open, and that he was only standing up for his constituents. “I will bear up under the criticism that I have been doing too much for my district,” he said.
Other lawmakers said the growing number of calls for intervention showed the dangers of large-scale government involvement in the auto companies, saying the result would be lawmakers trying to serve as top executives of auto companies.
“It is incestuous for members of Congress to be saying, ‘Close this plant; use this model; don’t buy the Volt battery in South Korea but make it in my district,’ ” said Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, referring to the G.M. hybrid car now in development.
Senator Alexander has instituted a “car czar of the day” award in recognition of Congressional meddling. “What do people in Washington know about building cars?” he said. “I don’t think very much.”
Even lawmakers backing the dealers expressed mixed emotions about dipping into the workings of the auto companies. But the dealer closings are striking a nerve in Congress. The federal government has been coming to the aid of the auto manufacturers, which lawmakers see as then turning around and abandoning the element of the industry closest to home for most of them.
Representative Frank M. Kratovil, a Maryland Democrat who has introduced a measure that would restore the franchise agreements, portrayed the situation as a “bailout for the big guys, but a force-out for the little guys.”
In the Senate, lawmakers have not gone as far as the House in pushing a bill to block the move by the manufacturers. But members of the Senate commerce committee this week urged Chrysler to allow dealers a chance to appeal the closures and for both carmakers to give preference to existing, profitable operations when the automakers try to set up new franchises in areas where dealers were shut off. G.M. already has an appeals process for dealers scheduled for closure.
“We think — in the interest of fairness — that profitable dealers in this situation should have a right of first refusal for the new dealership when Chrysler returns to that particular market,” read a letter signed by Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the West Virginia Democrat who heads the committee, along with other members. A similar letter was sent to G.M.
The car companies say that they need to scale back to be able to return to profitability and that cutting the number of dealers is crucial to that effort.