Texas Republican Joe Barton Apologizes to BP, Then Apologizes to America

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas)
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas)

BP's (BP) Deepwater Horizon disaster has had tragic consequences for the 11 men who died and their families, the Gulf Coast environment and the economy of a region heavily dependent on the now-sullied waters for sustenence.

On Thursday, as BP CEO Tony Hayward testifed before Congress, one Republican lawmaker identified yet another victim: BP itself.

Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican with close ties to the oil industry, apologized to Hayward and said he was "ashamed" that BP had been the victim of a "shakedown" Wednesday, when the company agreed to set aside $20 billion for claims resulting from the spill.

"I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday," Barton said. "I think it is 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."

Work Hard For That Money

"I apologize," Barton said, addressing Hayward. "I do not want to live in a country where any time a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong, it is subject to some sort of political pressure that, again, in my words, amounts to a shakedown. So I apologize."

Barton has received $1.4 million in contributions from the oil industry -- it's his biggest donor industry -- since 1989, according to the Center For Responsive Politics (CRP). Of course, oil companies have lavished money on members of both parties, but Barton is routinely among the top recipients.

In fact, as Nate Silver points out, Barton's largest single donor is Anadarko Petroleum (APC) -- BP's main partner in the Macondo Prospect, the very undersea oil field that blew out the Deepwater Horizon rig and has spewed millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.

Bipartisan Backlash

Barton's comments ignited a firestorm, starting with one of his own GOP colleagues, Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, who called for Barton to step down as ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"I am shocked by Congressman Joe Barton's reprehensible comments that the government should apologize for the 'shakedown' of BP," Miller said. "BP has caused the greatest ecological and environmental disaster our nation has ever seen.

"I condemn Mr. Barton's statement," Miller said. "Mr. Barton's remarks are out of touch with this tragedy, and I feel his comments call into question his judgment and ability to serve in a leadership [role] on the Energy and Commerce Committee."

Another Republican, House Minority Leader John Boehner, from Ohio, also said he disagreed with Barton's comments. "BP agreed to fund the cost of this cleanup from the beginning, and I'm glad they're being held accountable," Boehner told reporters.

"The Real Tragedy"

White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs issued a statement saying that it's "shameful 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,'" Gibbs said, "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."

Barton got some support from at least one fellow GOP'er. Texas Sen. John Cornyn suggested he was sympathetic to Barton's statement.

"I think it's good that there's going to be some money there," Cornyn told reporters. "But I think the part that Representative Barton is expressing some concern about, that I share the concern, is that this has become a political issue for the president, and he's trying to deal with it by showing how tough he's being against BP." Like his Texas colleague, Cornyn gets plenty of donations from the oil industry. He has received $1.6 million from it over his career, Cornyn's third-largest donor industry, according to the CRP.

Then, a Total Reversal

During the afternoon session, Barton tried to walk back his comments.

"I just want to be clear that I think BP is responsible for this accident, should be held responsible and should do everything to make good on the consequences that have resulted from this accident," Barton said. "And if anything I said this morning has been misconstrued to that effect I want to apologize for that misconstruction."

Even before the panel finished its grilling of BP's Hayward, Barton went much further, retracting his statement altogether.

"I apologize for using the term 'shakedown' with regard to yesterday's actions at the White House in my opening statement this morning, and I retract my apology to BP," Barton said. "As I told my colleagues yesterday and said again this morning, BP should bear the full financial responsibility for the accident on their lease in the Gulf of Mexico. BP should fully compensate those families and businesses that have been hurt by this accident."

Which raises the question: Was Barton more sincere when he apologized to BP, or when he apologized for apologizing to BP?