The National Automobile Dealers Association is back as a muscular force on Capitol Hill.
A year ago, the group was slow in coming to the defense of dealers targeted for closing by General Motors and Chrysler. Part of the reason was that its membership was split between rejected stores and those that survived.
But NADA looked as if it were on steroids last week as it pushed to exempt nearly all dealers from oversight by a new consumer finance agency.
The 17,000-member group took on an extraordinary array of powers -- and won. The only other institutions to win a similar exclusion were community banks.
Allied against NADA were President Barack Obama, the Treasury Department and the Pentagon.
Supporting the administration on Capitol Hill were the two senior Democratic lawmakers who led negotiations on compromise legislation: Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts.
And buttressing these powerful officials' positions with examples of dealer abuses were groups of military families and consumer and civil rights activists.
In the end, NADA prevailed because, with members united, it got rank-and-file Democrats in the House and Senate to buck their leaders and the president. The lobby also won a broad cross section of Republican support, as expected.
"If you think about car dealers we know, that's Main Street, that's employers, that's Little League sponsorship, that's really the heart and soul of places where I lived in West Virginia and certainly across the country," Rep. Shelly Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said last week.
NADA exercised clout at a time when its ranks have been shrinking. Membership is expected to drop 20 percent, from 20,000 at the end of 2008 to 16,000 at the end of this year, said association spokesman Bailey Wood.
NADA's declining ranks were cited by some lawmakers as they considered possible new federal oversight.
"We're tightening the screws on an industry that has had a desperate two or three years," Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., said last week.
Not to be underestimated are NADA's ample resources, spread as campaign contributions to Republicans and Democrats in a 2-1 ratio over the past decade, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
NADA is the 19th-largest donor among more than 100,000 special-interest groups since 1989, the center said. The $24.7 million it has donated during that time is more than the combined amount given by Exxon Mobil and Wall Street's Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.
House and Senate negotiators agreed last week to a compromise bill prompted by the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. It goes to the full House and Senate this week for a final vote and then on to Obama, who has said he will sign the bill.
The legislation creates a new Federal Reserve agency that will oversee consumer financial products such as mortgages and credit cards. Financial institutions that provide loans to auto customers will be regulated by the agency, as will the few dealerships that offer direct financing.
The vast majority of dealerships, which collect a fee to help arrange financing, will not be overseen by the new agency. They still will be regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Reserve and state agencies.
NADA waged a nine-month battle in which it mobilized members to beat the drum with nearly every lawmaker -- through Washington fly-ins, phone calls, e-mails and visits to members during recess.
The only time NADA was outmaneuvered was in a Senate vote on legislation that omitted any reference to an exclusion for auto dealers.
But the lobby came back days later with a proposal by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., for a nonbinding recommendation that would exclude dealers from oversight.
The overwhelming 60-30 Senate vote for an exemption caused Dodd to say in conference that he felt bound by the sentiment expressed.
Said NADA's Wood: "Our dealers are salesmen. You give them something to sell, whether it be cars or legislation, they'll sell it."