The Texas lawmaker who apologized to BP for the US government's insistence that the oil giant set up a fund to compensate oil spill victims may soon be the most powerful voice in the House on US energy policy.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) is a leading contender for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a position he held once before, during the 2004-2006 congressional session.
Barton brought attention to himself in June, when the Obama administration announced that BP would set up a $20-billion escrow fund to compensate businesses and households affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
"I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday," Barton said. "I think it's a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown ... in this case, a $20 billion shakedown with the Attorney General of the United States...."
Barton concluded: "I'm not speaking for anybody else, but I apologize."
The Texas lawmaker quickly apologized, after his comments were condemned even by fellow Republicans. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said he "couldn't disagree with Barton more," while Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) called for Barton to lose his position as the ranking Republican on the energy committee.
Now, with the Republicans back in control of House committees in the upcoming session, Barton has announced his desire to chair the committee once more. "I will ask my colleagues for the privilege of serving as chairman of the committee I love, the House Energy and Commerce Committee," he wrote last week in a column for the Washington Times.
A BIG BOOST FOR BIG OIL?
As the New York Times noted shortly after the "apology" controversy, Barton "has long been one of the top beneficiaries of campaign donations from big energy companies, cornerstones of the Texas economy."
"BP and other major players in the oil business might hope for more of [Barton's] kind of solicitude from the House Energy and Commerce panel," writes Brett Michael Dykes at The Upshot. Dykes argues that putting Barton back in the Energy and Commerce driver's seat could be bad politics for the GOP.
The Democrats got plenty of mileage out of Barton's comments this election season, running ads that stated, among other things, "This is how Republicans would govern." And in his campaign stops around the country, President Obama often singled out Barton's potential committee chairmanship as reason enough to vote for Democrats.
"The top Republican on the Energy Committee, you may recall -- this is the guy who would be in charge of the Energy Committee in the House of Representatives -- apologized after the oil spill to BP," President Obama recently said at a luncheon in Ohio. "Remember this? He apologized because I had said to BP, 'you need to set aside $20 billion to make sure that we're making fishermen and small business owners whole as a consequence of your mistakes.' This guy, he apologized to BP ... Imagine that. That's what's at stake in this election."
Barton faces competition from Republican Fred Upton, a 12-term congressman from Michigan. Upton said last week he would target the health reform law passed by Democrats earlier this year, and try to dismantle it piece by piece.
"I know there’s going to be a vote to repeal the whole thing if we take over, but in all likelihood we’re not going to have the votes to override,” Upton said. “I look at this a little bit like a Jenga game. It’s a good game with my kids. We’re going to look at the pieces."
Dikes notes that Barton can't win the chair without violating rules limiting tenure (he was chair from 2004 to 2006 and the ranking Republican in the most recent session). He would need a waiver from the Republican leadership to take up the position.