Before Rep. Joe Barton’s apology to BP heard 'round the world, Republicans were trying to make a couple of points about the Gulf oil spill – points now lost in a blizzard of charges that the GOP is in the pocket of Big Oil.
Other Republicans on the House panel that grilled BP CEO Tony Hayward on Thursday focused on two themes: One, the spill, for which BP must be held responsible, is a disaster for people in the Gulf region, but so is the president's offshore drilling embargo. And two: Federal regulators are responsible for oversight of BP’s actions in the Gulf, so why isn't Congress grilling them, too?
House Republican leaders quickly recognized the political peril of Representative Barton's charge that Congress owed BP an apology for White House pressure on the firm to establish a $20 billion escrow fund – a “shakedown” – to help victims of the spill. They gave the Texas Republican an ultimatum: Apologize for the apology – and quickly – or lose his position as top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
But for the political spin cycle, Barton's second apology came too late. The damage was done. Barton was, in an instant, the poster boy for why not to give Republicans the majority in the House in the midterm elections.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) launched an online petition: “GOP Congressman Joe Barton had the nerve to apologize to BP CEO Tony Hayward for the 'tragedy' of holding the oil giant accountable for the devastation caused by the Gulf oil disaster. The American people must respond to this shameful display with a strong and unified voice.”
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs posted an online tweet: “Who would the GOP put in charge of overseeing the energy industry & Big Oil if they won control of Congress? Yup, u guessed it - JOE BARTON."
In a midafternoon press briefing, Speaker Nancy Pelosi charged that Barton's comments “fit comfortably among the leadership of the Republicans in the House of Representatives.” She referenced a comment by Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, who chairs the Republican Study Committee, the leading conservative caucus: “BP’s reported willingness to go along with the White House new fund suggests that the Obama administration is hard at work exerting its brand of Chicago-style shakedown politics."
During his time in Congress, Barton has received $27,000 in campaign contributions from BP and $1.4 million from the oil and gas industry as a whole.
“It’s amazing that Representative Barton would stand up for a multinational corporation that has wrecked the livelihoods of so many people along the Gulf Coast,” said David Donnelly, campaign manager for the Campaign for Fair Elections. “Comments like this make all Americans question whether Congress represents them or the special interests funding their campaigns.”
"The DCCC will hold these out-of-touch House Republicans accountable who have no shame when it comes to jumping to the defense of BP and Big Oil," said DCCC spokesman Ryan Rudominer.
Barton’s overall point – lost the moment he uttered the word “apology” – was that the Obama White House is too involved in micromanaging American business. It violated due process, he said.
“With the attorney general of the United States, who is legitimately conducting a criminal investigation and has every right to do so to protect the interest of the American people, participating in what amounts to a $20 billion slush fund, that [assigning monetary compensation before resolution of a criminal case] is unprecedented in our nation's history, that has got no legal standing, and ... I think sets a terrible precedent for the future,” he said, in remarks opening a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on Thursday.
Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts countered that he disagreed with Barton “in the strongest possible terms." The $20 billion was not a slush fund, but “the American government working at its best” to protect its most vulnerable citizens. “We can't lose sight of the fact that the 1984 Bhopal disaster [of a toxic gas in India] and the lawsuits that were related to it were only settled last week. We have to ensure that the citizens of the Gulf are protected.”