Joe Barton: Who is defending him?

Rep. Joe Barton apologized to BP CEO Tony Hayward Thursday for what he termed a '$20 billion shakedown' of BP by the White House. The Texan was forced to recant, but he has his defenders.

Alex Brandon/AP
Rep. Joe Barton (R) of Texas listens to opening statements before BP CEO Tony Hayward's testimony during a congressional hearing Thursday in Washington.

Joe Barton is in big trouble. Barton, a Republican member of Congress from Texas, became infamous in a moment on Thursday when he apologized to BP chief executive Tony Hayward for what Barton termed a “$20 billion shakedown” by the White House.

This refers to the $20 billion escrow fund that President Obama has jawboned BP into establishing.

In political terms, apologizing to a company whose US poll numbers are so bad they make journalists look popular is a really bad idea. Representative Barton found this out when, with the hearing at which he made his remark still going on, he was hauled into the office of House minority leader John Boehner of Ohio.

Representative Boehner told Barton to withdraw his statement or lose his prized position as top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce panel. So, later in the day Barton apologized for his apology.

Taking back something that was part of your written statement at the hearing opening – not just some off-the-cuff blather to a reporter in the hallway? Whoa. That’s not just eating your words. That’s like having them cut up and fed to you one by one in front of an audience of interns on the National Mall.

But Barton has his defenders. There are people in Washington who believe that by using the pulpit power of the presidency to push BP in that direction the president did indeed exceed his authority.

This was the headline on an analysis posted Friday on the Heritage Foundation website: “Joe Barton is Right: There Was a $20 Billion Shakedown in the White House.”

Heritage analyst Conn Carroll notes in the piece that BP has, among other things, received no assurance from the White House that it won’t ask for more money, and no assurance that final damages won’t be higher. And by the way, the whole thing was negotiated in the presence of Attorney General Eric Holder, who has threatened BP with criminal prosecution.

The real victim was not even BP, writes Mr. Carroll. “It was the rule of law.”

At National Review Online, Daniel Foster says that Barton’s choice of words was awful, but that on substance, he was right. Establishing a fund over and above an existing claims process is, if not illegal, “then at least extra-legal,” writes Mr. Foster.

And prior to Thursday’s hearing, the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a group of conservative GOP members, used “shakedown” to describe the White House escrow-establishment process.

The president has no legal authority to compel a private firm to set up an escrow account, noted RSC chairman Rep. Tom Price (R) of Georgia in a June 16 statement.

“BP’s reported willingness to go along with the White House’s new fund suggests that the Obama administration is hard at work exerting its brand of Chicago-style shakedown politics,” wrote Representative Price.

As for the White House, officials there have been treating Barton’s comments as a gift that keeps on giving. Administration officials continue to denounce the Texas lawmaker’s apology to BP despite the fact that he has in effect taken it back.

“What we saw here was an example of what some folks in the Republican Party truly believe, which ... was BP was the wronged party,” said deputy press secretary Bill Burton on Friday. “And this is just not what the president thinks.”


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