Toyota and Lobbying Disclosure

There has been a good deal of buzz regarding this Toyota internal document, which purports to show the various “wins” of the company’s Public Policy and Governmental/Regulatory Affairs office in Washington, D.C.   In particular, the media has focused the document’s claim that Toyota saved $100 million by negotiating a limited recall with respect to the sudden acceleration problem in the Toyota Camry. A different aspect of the document caught my attention, however.  Many of Toyota’s “wins,” including the recall issue and various rulemakings cited in the internal document, involve dealings with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), yet Toyota’s lobbying disclosure filings do not show any lobbying of NHTSA. This might be because Toyota’s communications with NHTSA did not involve “covered executive branch officials” under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.  Only a small number of officials at NHTSA, such as the Administrator, Deputy Administrator and other high-ranking officials, would qualify as “covered executive branch officials” under the LDA.  Communications with other NHTSA officials do not qualify as “lobbying contacts” and therefore may not trigger a reporting requirement.  To make matters more confusing, in some cases it may not be clear whether a particular official is covered or not. Even if Toyota communicated with a covered official, moreover, the communication still may not qualify as a lobbying contact.  The LDA exempts certain types of communications related to administrative proceedings from the definition of lobbying contact.  For example, communications in formal administrative hearings are exempted if they are made in accordance with written agency procedures.  In addition, written communications in public rulemaking proceedings are exempted (on the theory that these communications are available to the public anyway).  In many cases the applicability of these exceptions to particular communications may be less than clear, leaving it up to the judgment of the filer as to whether they need to be reported. Regardless of why Toyota’s filings fail to disclose its communications with NHTSA, this is another example of the disconnect between what the LDA identifies as “lobbying” and what the general public may perceive that term to mean.