In the wake of controversial comments made by Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) during a recent House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing, angry partisan reactions from both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill were expectedly fierce. But the senior Texas Republican’s open apology to British Petroleum (BP) Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward also threw a glaring spotlight on the influence of campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry in Washington. The ranking Republican member on the House Committee overseeing regulation of the energy industry issued an unusual apologia to Hayward during the embattled CEO’s testimony before irate legislators probing the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Barton, before a standing room only crowd of staffers, spectators and journalists, described the Obama Administration’s recent deal with BP to pay $20 billion for an oil spill victim escrow fund as “… a shakedown.”
“I’m ashamed of what happened in the White House,” Barton said in opening remarks to an otherwise subdued Hayward. “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. I apologize. I do not want to live in a country where anytime a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong is subject to some sort of political pressure that is, again, in my words, amounts to a shakedown. So I apologize.”
While reactions to Burton’s apology were immediate, as swift were the reactions of many political observers who noted the Texas Congressman’s ties to big oil. “Ordinarily, it’s not that shocking to see a Republican from Texas defend the petroleum industry,” says Nate Silver, a political polling analyst and founder of FiveThirtyEight.com. “But Rep. Barton’s comments to Tony Hayward obviously touched something of a raw nerve, with Republicans seeking to distance themselves from the comment while Democrats look for ways to exploit it.”
Like Silver, many Beltway insiders are following the money, struggling to make sense of the senior Republican’s bizarre statement. This puts the GOP in the uncomfortable position of rationalizing the cash Barton and other Republicans receive from major oil and gas companies for re-election bids. Representing the 6th District of Texas since 1989, Barton has received over $146,000 in contributions from BP partner Anadarko Petroleum. With its quarter share in the oil prospecting development which oversaw the creation of the Deepwater Horizon rig, Anadarko is also under intense scrutiny from lawmakers, regulators and BP itself. Targeted as the primary obligor of the $20 billion escrow fund, BP has already taken action to recoup some of those costs through invoicing Anadarko for what it believes is the partner’s share of the cleanup effort.
“We’re getting this question over and over again: who are the lawmakers who’ve received the most money from BP?” says Levinthal. “While we’ve reported the answer time and again, no better time to rehash it than now.”
According to the Center, Barton received an additional $27,350 since 1990 in campaign contributions from individuals and political action committees linked to BP while listed as one of the Top 20 recipients of BP-associated cash. During the 2009-2010 campaign cycle Barton’s campaign committee received a total of $100,470 from the oil and gas industry. In total, Barton banked nearly $400,000 in contributions from the energy and natural resource industry sector.
Barton is not alone. Nor are Republican lawmakers the only beneficiaries of the troubled oil giant.
The top recipient of BP campaign contributions is President Barack Obama who received $77,051 from individuals and PACs associated with the company. Conservative blogger Cassy Fiano believes that’s a significant fact being overlooked by media outlets. “You won’t ever hear about Obama being in the pocket of Big Oil,” says Fiano. “That was always hurled at President Bush, but never at Obama. Yet here is Obama, taking the largest amount of donations from BP related PACs and individuals. I assume that it’s, of course, just coincidence that he dragged his feet in responding to this catastrophe.”
Fending off a torrent of political blasts from critics and Republican opponents, the White House angrily rejected the notion of a cozy relationship between the President and oil interests.
“President Obama didn’t accept a dime from corporate PACs or federal lobbyists during his presidential campaign,” said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt. “He raised $750 million from nearly four million Americans. And since he became president, he rolled back tax breaks and giveaways for the oil and gas industry, spearheaded a G20 agreement to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, and made the largest investment in American history in clean energy incentives.”
Despite initial calls for the President to return BP contributions, many environmentalists and campaign finance watchdogs express concern that the real problem lies with Congress – where legislation is forged and passed. “If you want to fault Obama for taking Big Oil money, go for it. If you think it may have influenced his decision to expand offshore drilling, fine,” says Jonathan Hiskes, a writer for the online magazine Grist. “But he wants to sign a decent clean-energy bill, according to everything we’ve seen him do and heard him say.”
BP, through its network of lobbyists, PACs and other surrogates, has contributed upwards of $6 million to federal candidates in the past two decades, distributing cash to both Democrats and Republicans. Since last year, dozens of federal candidates have received BP contributions, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) who received $4,000 and Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) who received $5,000 and recently fought off a tough, highly publicized primary challenge from Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. According to Politico, those figures are dwarfed by the nearly $16 million spent in 2009 on lobbyists in an aggressive effort to influence energy policy. “The Senate is where the bill is stalled out. That’s where oil money is doing the most damage,” argues Hiskes.
As the ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico continues, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that legislators from coastal states like Louisiana are among the oil industries biggest election cycle recipients. Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana pocketed over $28,000 in BP campaign contributions – with $17,000 of that received in 2008. At a recent Senate hearing on offshore drilling, Landrieu attempted to downplay the spill. “I mean, just the gallons are so minuscule compared to the benefits of U.S. strength and security, the benefits of job creation and energy security.”
That has drawn the ire and suspicion of environmental activists.
“They own Mary Landrieu and the rest of the Louisiana delegation,” says Kert Davies of Greenpeace when discussing BP’s influence. “They have more money, disposable income and a fleet of dispensable lobbyists to beat the band.”
And despite the brewing disaster in the Gulf, BP continues doling out cash to receptive lawmakers. “That hasn’t stopped its political action committee from raising funds and distributing money to candidates,” observes Money-in-Politics reporter Michael Beckel.
Researching monthly federal campaign finance reports, the Center for Responsive Politics noticed that Texas Democrat Charles Gonzalez, who also sits on the House Energy Committee, was the lone recipient of BP candidate donations in May 2010. Once news broke that Gonzalez, who represents over half of San Antonio, received $1,000 from BP’s PAC on May 19, a spokesperson claimed it was never cashed and returned once the Congressman became “aware of it.”