On Thursday, during a congressional hearing with BP CEO Tony Hayward, Representative Joe Barton, a Republican of Texas, apologized personally to Hayward for the behavior of the Obama administration the day before. Obama had secured a $20 billion compensation account from BP to offset damages caused by the Gulf oil spill, and it was this that Barton repeatedly apologized for, calling it "a shakedown" and "a tragedy of the first proportion." Barton's remarks have occasioned a complex set of responses from the right, but a fair number of onlookers are simply apoplectic. (UPDATE: Barton has since apologized for his comments; see the bottom of this post.)
- What Barton Said Here's the transcript, as taken from this video.
I'm speaking now totally for myself. I'm not speaking for the Republican Party, I'm not speaking for anybody in the House of Representatives but myself. But I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday. I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation could 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, who is legitimately conducting a criminal investigation, and has every right to do so to protect the interests of the American people, participating in what amounts to a $20 billion slush fund that's unprecedented in our nation's history, that's got no legal standing, and which sets, I think, a terrible precedent for the future ... There is no question that BP is liable for the damages. But we have a due process system where we go through hearings, in some cases court cases, litigation, and determine what those damages are and when those damages should be paid. So I'm only speaking for myself, I'm not speaking for anybody else, but I apologize. I do not want to live in a country where any time a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong, he's subjected to some sort of political pressure that is again, in my words, amounts to a shakedown. So I apologize.
- 'Shameful' Press Secretary Robert Gibbs hit back with what Politico's Ben Smith calls "a very fast, campaigny statement." Here's the text of Gibbs's response:
What is shameful is that Joe Barton seems to have more concern for big corporations that caused this disaster than the fishermen, small business owners and communities whose lives have been devastated by the destruction. Congressman Barton may think that a fund to compensate these Americans is a ‘tragedy’, but most Americans know that the real tragedy is what the men and women of the Gulf Coast are going through right now. Members from both parties should repudiate his comments.
- Whoops! The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen sums up the feelings of many: Barton's remarks will prove invaluable to the Democrats come election season. "In an election context, this has the potential to be incredibly toxic. Barton's public apology to BP will be part of about a zillion campaign ads over the next several months, and Republicans have made a huge strategic error positioning themselves as the Party of BP."
- Could Be a Game-Changer, agrees Greg Sargent at The Washington Post. "Every now and then a gaffe comes along that really cuts through the noise and perfectly crystallizes the argument one side is trying to make, driving the debate with a whole new level of velocity and momentum. Barton's apology, with its extraordinary public display of solicitiousness and even pity towards the despised BP, even as the country is suffering wrenching losses from a major disaster of BP's making, is one of those moments."
- This Goes Way Beyond Barton, points out Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo. "What actually has me curious is when this gets back around to the House Republican Study Committee, which is essentially the right-wing or Movement conservative caucus within the House GOP, and a very big deal. Everybody's reacting to Barton's statement. But the HRS put out a pretty much identical statement yesterday about the Escrow account and President Obama yesterday. And more than a hundred members of the House Republican caucus belong to that group. That makes it much more of a Republican position than what Barton said."
- Barton's Kind of a Jerk, declares Alex Pareene at Salon. "Joe Barton does not want to live in a world where when corporations do bad things, they are forced to suffer consequences ... Barton has received more than $1.5 million from the oil industry. He's received more than $100,000 from oil and gas since last year. He does not believe in global warming and when he was previously chairman of the committee he used his post to harass climate scientists. He is dumb and mean ... And he'll be the most powerful member of the House on all energy and climate issues should the Republicans take back the House."
- Joe Biden's Not Happy Here are some of the phrases Vice President Biden used to describe Barton's statements (after much good-natured cajoling from reporters). "Incredibly insensitive, incredibly out of touch... outrageous... pretty astounding." Biden also marveled at Barton's characterization of the White House-BP agreement as a "shakedown": "It's insisting on responsible conduct, and a responsible response to something they caused."
- What Barton Said a Few Hours Later The New York Times reports on Barton's mid-day clarification: "I want the record to be absolutely clear that I believe BP is responsible for this accident, should be held responsible and should in every way possible make good on the consequences that have resulted from this accident. If anything I’ve said this morning was misconstrued from that I want to apologize for that misconstruction."