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K Street Files: Dispute Over Renting Recalled Vehicles Reaches a Crescendo

Consumer safety advocates may be on the verge of winning a years-long fight to ban rental car companies from renting and selling recalled vehicles.

Enterprise Rent-A-Car publicly opposed such proposals, but with a new bipartisan bill in the House and a companion measure expected to drop any day in the Senate, other industry players are joining the fray.

Avis Budget Group, has dramatically increased its lobbying activities, matching last year’s total expenditures in the first half of this year, bringing on a new firm, Washington2 Advocates, and hiring ex-Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) now of K&L Gates.

Enterprise, one of the largest privately held businesses in the nation, has spent more than $200,000 on lobbying so far this year. In 2011 the company spent nearly $1 million, almost four times the amount spent by its major competitors — Avis-Budget and Hertz Rent-a-Car — combined.

Earlier this month Reps. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) and Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.) introduced legislation including language that the driver advocacy group Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety and Hertz agreed to this spring.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) are expected to introduce a companion stand-alone measure in the coming weeks, aides said.

But the legislative proposals are not likely to appease rental car dealers, who argue that definitions laid out in the bill are too broad and don’t give them credit for good-faith efforts to keep recalled cars off the roads.

“Until we can get some clarity on these implementation issues, we don’t know what we are signing on to,” said Bill Kirk, another K&L Gates lobbyist on the case. “From the Avis point of view, the debate has never been about policy. “

Even with the support of two powerful lawmakers, industry backing is generally considered essential to moving consumer protection legislation, especially amid partisan gridlock with a dwindling number of legislative days in the current session. Lawmakers have yet to hold a hearing or a vote on the issue, making it impossible for activists to know where they stand with each Member.

Both Enterprise and Avis say they do not rent recalled cars, but that’s not enough for consumer advocates.

“Without legislation, what Enterprise is doing is not enforceable. They can say they are doing it, but not really be doing it,” said Pamela Gilbert, a lobbyist with Cuneo Gilbert & LaDuca, representing CARS. “They can do it today and stop tomorrow. In both cases, without a law, there isn’t anything anyone can do about it.”

Lobbywood

France has Cannes. Park City has Sundance. This is how K Street does a film festival: Billed as the “energy event of the summer,” Jack Gerard and his American Petroleum Institute this week are hosting Big Screen Energy: A Fracking Film Festival.

The API invited Hill denizens, lobbyists and reporters and expects a big turnout, the group’s spokesman Reid Porter said.

The event this Thursday, complete with red carpet and movie snacks, at the Warner Theatre, will feature the trailers of documentaries such as “FrackNation,” “Truthland,” “The Grand Energy Transition,” “The Empire State Divide” and “Switch — A Smarter Energy Future.” Filmmakers, including Karen Moreau of “The Empire State Divide” and Chris Tucker of “Truthland,” will be on hand to answer questions.

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