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Comment: The pressure on politicians investigating Toyota

By Jonathan Mann, CNN
Toyota Motor Corporation President and CEO Akio Toyoda is sworn in before his testimony on Tuesday
Toyota Motor Corporation President and CEO Akio Toyoda is sworn in before his testimony on Tuesday
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mechanical problems in Toyota vehicles are suspected of links to dozens of deaths
  • Toyota has 172,000 U.S. employees and spends billions in the U.S. every year
  • Among its friends are state governors who have publicly defended the company
  • The politicians are pressuring Toyota, but there are pressures on them too
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(CNN) -- The next time you see a dog chase after a car, ask yourself what would happen if the dog actually caught it.

American lawmakers were chasing Toyota this week, investigating its safety standards and questioning its executives in televised hearings that drew the entire country's attention.

Americans love their cars and buy more Toyotas than any drivers on Earth. But mechanical problems in Toyota vehicles are suspected of links to dozens of deaths.

The company has apologized repeatedly and says it's fixing the problems with a global recall of more than eight million vehicles.

U.S. prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation, while experts at the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration are on the case too.

So what will the politicians do about it? That should be interesting to see.

"There are what many people would consider to be a number of conflicts of interest here," said Dave Levinthal of the Center for Responsive Politics, which studies the links between money and public life.

Toyota has 172,000 U.S. employees and spends billions in the U.S. every year.

Its factories are regarded as prized assets to local economies across the country.

It contributes so generously to election campaigns that the Washington Post's review of the three Congressional committees investigating its cars found 40 percent of committee members have taken Toyota money.

Among its powerful friends are state governors who have publicly defended the company in a letter to Congress.

"As governors who are proud to have Toyota operations in our states, we can testify to the exemplary citizenship of one of the most admired companies in our nation."

America's Big Three automakers -- Ford, General Motors and Chrysler -- have let go of thousands of their workers over the years, but Toyota has a widely admired policy against layoffs.

No politician wants to punish the firm in a way that would threaten jobs at a time when the entire country faces stubbornly high unemployment.

So the U.S. is watching its lawmakers question company executives and government safety engineers, trying to learn more about what's gone wrong.

The politicians are pressuring Toyota, but there are pressures on them too.

 
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