For months, Enterprise Rent-A-Car has been fighting legislation that would make it illegal to rent vehicles that have been recalled by their manufacturers.
But it only took 48 hours for a Change.org petition to force Enterprise, the industry's most powerful lobbying force and biggest political donor, to the bargaining table.
Change.org, a social networking website founded in 2007, first earned attention for campaigns targeting the policies of major corporations such as Bank of America and Apple Inc., but the platform has also quickly become the destination for private citizens who want to sway legislation on Capitol Hill.
One such citizen is Cally Houck, who has been fighting for federal regulation of recalled rental vehicles since 2004, when her two daughters were killed after their recalled Enterprise rental car caught fire from leaking power steering fluid.
With the help of the driver advocacy group Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, Houck persuaded Hertz Rent-a-Car to support the bill earlier this month. The coalition then turned to Change.org in a furious race to persuade the rest of the industry to join the cause in time for the Senate to consider the measure this week.
In two days, the petition gathered nearly 136,000 signatures.
"It gives the little guy who has no resources at all a voice," Houck said. "During my travels as a proponent of this legislation both in D.C. and in California, it struck me that you just don't see the halls full of citizens like me."
The bill, introduced as a stand-alone measure in July by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), is likely to be offered as an amendment to Boxer's transportation funding bill this week.
Even with the support of two powerful lawmakers, industry backing is generally considered essential to winning approval for many amendments to the transportation bill.
Late last week, as signatures and scathing comments on the Change.org petition mounted, Enterprise began to waver, agreeing for the first time to meet with the consumer advocates. The company issued a vague statement "announcing its formal support for federal legislation to oversee the way car rental companies manage the safety recall process."
But when pressed by Roll Call, Laura Bryant, a spokeswoman for Enterprise Holdings, acknowledged that the company was not committing to much of anything.
"We have not endorsed any specific legislation or amendment to date," she said.
Every time someone signs the Change.org petition, an email is automatically sent to five senior employees at Enterprise, including Bryant and Andrew Taylor, the company's CEO.
But the petition has generated so much attention that the company's stance may be irrelevant to the provision's prospects in Congress, said Pamela Gilbert, a CARS lobbyist with Cuneo, Gilbert & LaDuca.
"It is more important to get hundreds of thousands of signatures in support of this legislation than to have the rental companies on our side," Gilbert said.
Even Hertz Senior Vice President Richard Broome said the petition seems to have outperformed millions of dollars spent on top Washington lobbyists.
"These are people who may not have influence and can't hire a lobbyist, but the petition shows they do have power," he said.
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