by Ken Silverstein
In these turbulent times, what institution could be more reassuring than the American Automobile Association? Its 43 million members - including, until recently, myself-know the venerable auto club, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, to be an unfailing source of rescue from travel predicaments. For members with flat tires, the club sends tow trucks; for those unsure of the way, the club provides maps. Had I found myself incarcerated by a small-town sheriff, the club would even have paid my bond. Among the nation's lawmakers, though, AAA is better known for its political clout, cultivated with millions of dollars of its members' annual dues. Drivers clutching this card as a talisman against automotive calamity should know that, in doing so, they lend support to an agenda-in favor of road building, against pollution control and even auto-safety measures-that helps deepen the automotive calamity afflicting the nation as a whole.
AAA began as a federation of nine regional auto clubs in 1902, when horses outnumbered cars as a means of transportation by 17 million to 23,000. The club, as a member of the nascent "good roads" campaign, won its first legislative victories in Oregon, which, in 1917, passed the nations first vehicle tax-after C. C. Chapman, chief sponsor of the tax, ensured support by drawing a map that diverted a proposed highway to service the farmhouses of dozens of his senate colleagues-and, in 1919, the first gasoline tax, the revenues from both of which were set aside for improving roads. By 1929 all forty-eight states had enacted gas taxes, collectively raising $300 million for road building each year. In the 1950s, AAA joined Detroit automakers-along with the Asphalt Institute and the American Concrete Pavement Association-to help win approval for the Eisenhower interstate-highway system, an astonishing 41,000 miles of fresh roadway servicing more than 90 percent of congressional districts.
Today, AAA encompasses eighty-one regional clubs throughout the Untied States and Canada. Together these clubs collect billions of dollars in fees and annual dues, from which they generously fund national political action through a fifteen-person Washington office. AAA's governing board is not directly elected, and its political activities are carried out with little or no oversight from members. A frequent target of the group's Washington office has been federal environmental laws. In 1999, AAA opposed new rules that required cleaner-burning exhaust systems for cars, trucks, and SUVs, and two years prior assailed an EPA proposal requiring states to reduce levels of smog and soot. In 1990, AAA even fought the strengthening of the Clean Air Act - a measure supported by three fourths of Americans - on the grounds that it would limit the "personal mobility" of motorists.
AAA lobbies states and localities with even greater vigor. In the Washington, D.C., area, representatives of the Mid-Atlantic club make frequent appearances in state legislatures, city hall, and county councils. AAA supports the widening of Virginia's Interstate 66 and the construction of a new bridge over the Potomac, two measures opposed by environmental and community groups. The club spent years battling stricter vehicle-emissions standards in Maryland, whose air, because of emissions and pollution from states upwind, is among the nation's worst. In March, AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman "Lon" Anderson (a former spokesman of the Beer Institute) testified in favor of a bill that allows private companies to build roads, and makes no provision for public review or oversight. "They always get up and say they are speaking on behalf of their millions of members," notes Dru Schmidt-Perkins, the director of a state "smart growth" advocacy group. "Most of the membership doesn't even know that they lobby."
For all AAA's bluster about safety, Clarence Ditlow, the head of D.C.'s Center for Auto Safety, says he "can't think of a single case" in which the club joined a fight for auto-safety legislation - including the decade-long push for mandatory air bags, which at one point the club actively opposed. Politically, the main "emergency assistance" AAA supplies is to its allies in big business, who piggyback on the club's wholesome, noncontroversial image. After one legislative victory, a representative of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association told the National Journal that AAA's support "demonstrated that the coalition included consumers as well as businesses and contractors." Along with most major oil companies and automakers, AAA belongs to the American Highway Users Alliance, a lobbying group that claims building more roads will actually improve air quality: "Cars stuck in traffic waste fuel," it notes, "and emit more pollution than cars that are moving freely."
This year, the federal government
will spend four times as much on highway construction as
it will on mass transit, perpetuating an approach to traffic
congestion that one anti-sprawl activist aptly compares
to "trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt."
Few organizations have done more in the past century to
advance this disastrous cycle than has AAA, though the group
is understandably reluctant to advertise the fact. In the
Mid-Atlantic club's 2001 annual report, a four-paragraph
synopsis of the club's "Public Affairs" activity
include no mention of the group's lobbying on roads projects
or emissions standards, and instead focuses exclusively
on its safety initiatives. If AAA's members knew just how
much politicking their dues paid for - and just what that
politicking aimed to accomplish - then perhaps more of them
would, like me, drive solo.
©2002 by Harper's Magazine. All rights reserved.
Reproduced from the May issue by special permission.