For BP, Purgatory or Apology?


Presidential addresses come and go, but oil spills are forever, or at least for the foreseeable future. So while President Obama’s speech on Tuesday was panned by nearly everyone (a notable exception being my colleague Ross Douthat), he can perhaps take some solace in the fact that the appearance by BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, before Congress on Thursday wasn’t exactly a spellbinder, either. Unless, as Esquire’s Marty Beckerman suspects, the rubes on Capitol Hill were simply unaware that Hayward “is not an empty suit; he is a visionary modern philosopher on par with Sartre and Foucault, perhaps even a mystic.” Here is Beckerman’s deconstruction of Hayward’s deconstructionism:

“I’d like to understand the context … as I understand it.”

“I clearly am the ultimate power…”

“I had no prior knowledge.”

“We have begun to change the culture.”

“We came together to figure out a way of working together.”

“To form a way forward… that’s what we’re going to do.”

“It is a thing that I talk about every time I talk internally or externally.”

“I haven’t drawn a conclusion… it’s too early to reach conclusions.”

“The long-term integrity of the well will be best served by a long string.”

“I don’t recall the time that was saved.”

“[W]hatever form is appropriate.”

“There are several hundred entities…”

“Everyone who’s been impacted by this has been kept whole.”

“I wasn’t part of the decision-making process… I wasn’t involved in any of the decision making… I simply was not involved in the decision-making process… I was not part of that decision-making process… I was not involved in that decision… I was not involved in the decision making… That was a decision I was not party to…. I wasn’t involved in the decision making on the day… I wasn’t involved or aware of any of the decisions… I wasn’t involved; I’m sorry.”

“I’m not a cement engineer, I’m afraid.”

A shortcoming I admit to sharing, Tony.

But one man amid the vengeful throng saw Hayward as something else entirely: the victim of a “$20 billion shakedown” and deserving recipient of an apology. Here is Representative Joe Barton, Republican of Texas, living through a moment he’ll never get back, no matter how often he tries:

Needless to say, the left had a little fun with Barton’s characterization of the escrow fund BP told the White House it would create for victims of the spill.

Josh Marshall of TPM thinks the (initial) apology has legs:

Barton’s in an incredibly safe district … But I’m certain we’re going to hear these quotes again and again on the campaign trail this fall in other more middle of the road districts. … Demonizing particular individuals can go way too far. And we’re going to see a lot of it, just as we have in other calamities where the political breakdowns are different. But this almost literal groveling or knee-defense of BP executives is exactly what Democrats will want to show on a national level that Republicans are on the wrong side of this issue. And I suspect it will have a real effect, if only in strengthening a number of embattled incumbents.

Steve M. at No More Mr. Nice Blog takes a broader view, feeling that the escrow deal shows that “the apolitical majority of Americans have done something that the left alone has never managed to do: they’ve pressured a reluctant Barack Obama to move to the left on an issue.” He explains:

When 71% of the country says the president has been too soft on BP and only 3% say he’s been too tough, even the conflict-averse Obama responds. On the public option, on breaking up the big banks, on civil liberties, angry lefties alone have never managed to get this kind of response. It’s yet another indication that if the left wants to have any clout, it needs to make inroads among people in the vast middle — many of whom are inclined to a basic liberalism but aren’t fired up by the issues that move committed lefties. We need, as I’ve said, to make more liberals. We need to get a bigger percentage of the population on our side. And no, I don’t know how to do that.

Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen points out that Barton isn’t the only one taking offense at the BP payout:

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) called the escrow “a redistribution-of-wealth fund” that could serve as a “gateway” for “more money to government.” A variety of right-wing media personalities — Limbaugh, Hannity, and Oliver North — all read from identical talking points, calling the independently-operated escrow account “a slush fund.” Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) continues to whine about the money set aside for the Gulf Coast, inexplicably telling the AP, “If they take a huge amount of money and put it in an escrow account so they can’t use it to drill oil wells and produce revenue, are they going to be able to pay us?”

I find all of this rather bewildering. Given the nature of the crisis, it stood to reason that politicians would be tripping over each other to appear “tougher” on BP than the next guy. What elected official in his/her right mind would want to side with the oil giant responsible for the worst environmental catastrophe in American history? Apparently, we’re getting a clearer picture of the answer.

You can add another G.O.P. group to the list, reports Eric Kleefeld at TPMDC: “The Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative House members, released a statement Wednesday bashing the fund — and seeming to criticize BP for accepting it. The group’s chairman, Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), said in a statement that while BP should be held responsible for damages, ‘BP’s reported willingness to go along with the White House’s new fund suggests that the Obama Administration is hard at work exerting its brand of Chicago-style shakedown politics. These actions are emblematic of a politicization of our economy that has been borne out of this Administration’s drive for greater power and control.’ ”

“The ’slush fund’ will not be managed by the federal government or BP, but an independent third party, funded over four years with a small fraction of BP’s annual revenues,” notes Brad Johnson at ThinkProgress. “Barton has taken $1.4 million from the oil and gas industry, including $27,350 from BP. In Barton’s world, it seems that the small people have to pay for their mistakes, but companies don’t.”

“What to make of all this?” asks Forbes’s Brian Wingfield of the political donations issue. “First, Republicans and Democrats are big recipients of campaign contributions from Big Oil (and gas). Likewise, it makes clear that energy issues are often regional–not partisan–in scope. In addition, those running for office (almost all of the lawmakers listed above are up for re-election) tend to look to profitable industries when raising campaign cash. That’s why it’s not too surprising that the biggest recipient of contributions from BP during the 2008 election cycle was an Illinois senator named Barack Obama, who took in $71,000 from political action committees and individuals connected to the company. The second biggest recipient? Obama’s Republican challenger for the White House, Arizona Sen. John McCain, with nearly $37,000 in contributions tied to BP.”

Back to the present: So, did the Republican leadership back Barton? Well, they walked back as quickly as they could: “House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) broke with a top Republican on Thursday who suggested BP had suffered a ’shakedown’ by being forced to set up a $20 billion fund to pay out damages,” reported The Hill’s Michael O’Brien. “Asked at his weekly press conference if he disagreed with Barton’s characterization of the deal struck Wednesday at the White House, Boehner quickly responded, ‘I do. BP agreed to fund the cost of this cleanup from the beginning and I’m glad they’re being held accountable.’ ”

Still, there remains a school of thought that in pushing the escrow fund, the White House adopted the Luca Brasi technique. Here’s the Heritage Foundation’s Foundry blog:

Don’t buy for a second any of the mainstream media’s line about this being good for BP. The White House made clear yesterday that the $20 billion was just a down payment and in no way represented a cap on BP’s liability. In fact, the President explicitly said that the fund would not preclude individuals or states from pressing claims in court, and that it would remain separate from BP’s liability for the damages to the environment. And these damages may include the costs of cleanup for damage far beyond what BP caused. …

Yes, BP did get the White House to say they do not want to see BP driven into bankruptcy. But who does that promise really serve? Clinton administration Deputy Attorney General turned BP lawyer Jamie Gorelick explains: “We know what it looks like when a company is driven into bankruptcy. The claims that come first are the creditors, then the employees, then the environmental claims, and then the likes of shrimpers. This would not be a good result for anyone.”

While Heritage complains that this has echoes of the White House insisting that Wall Street sign on to the Tarp plan, The Financial Times’s John Gapper thinks oil is the new tobacco:

It has echoes of the 1998 tobacco settlement in which the industry paid $246bn to states following legal action by their attorneys-general. Only 5 per cent of that money was spent on tobacco-related initiatives, with Virginia, for example, investing in higher education, fibreoptic cables and research into energy.

Willie Sutton, the robber, sagely observed that he raided banks because that was where the money was, and US politicians know this lesson well. The voters do not have a lot since they are recovering from a loss of paper wealth in the housing bust and governments around the world (as well as US states) face yawning budget deficits.

And Ross Kaminsky of the American Spectator sees a different echo entirely: “The president has no authority to do such a thing — but neither did he have authority to cram down Chrysler and GM bond holders for the benefit of the UAW.” He continues: “BP is not a victim here. They’re not in the least bit sympathetic. But this is the nation that presumes innocence before guilt, that is founded on the rule of law rather than of men. How strange it is that we elected a president who wants to give terrorist murderers the benefit of the doubt, give them access to legal protections they’re not even entitled to, but treats a major international corporation — which had already said it would pay all legitimate claims — the way Al Capone treated a rival moonshine distributor.”

“Barton was concerned with due process,” and rightly so, according to Robert Stacy McCain. “Now, granted, BP isn’t a private citizen of Louisiana destroyed by all this, and Barton isn’t the ACLU, but the Obama Administration couldn’t lead two nuns in one minute of silent prayer, to say nothing of handling the Federal end of a disaster relief operation. The final report, after a thorough investigation, could very well show that $20B is merely an overture. However, if this incident proves as steeped in creepy as everything else from the past 18 months, we’re better off awaiting the results of that investigation.”

And the conservative blogger Sister Toldjah thinks the G.O.P. establishment is making a big mistake in cutting Barton loose. “Many conservative voters … will continue contributing money to individual candidates rather than giving any to the NRCC … Here you have a Republican Congressman standing on principle regarding what the WH is trying to do to BP, and as soon as the Democrats start wailing about “this just proves the GOP are in the pockets of Big Oil” they retreat and go into “crisis” mode when really they should be standing by his side. This is nothing more than throwing one of your own under the bus in the interest of political expediency … something Barack Obama normally does, but something we should not.”

For my colleague David Brooks, the real victim of the White House’s aggressive posture is not BP, but states’ rights. “We have a federalism problem,” he argues. “All around the region there are local officials who think they know their towns best. They feel insulted by a distant and opaque bureaucracy lurking above. The balance between federal oversight and local control is off-kilter. We have vested too much authority in national officials who are really smart, but who are really distant. We should be leaving more power with local officials, who may not be as expert, but who have the advantage of being there on the ground.”

He’s pushing on an open door when it comes to one local leader. “Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has spent the past week and half fighting to get working barges to begin vacuuming crude oil out of his state’s oil-soaked waters,” report ABC News’s David Muir and Bradley Blackburn. “Thursday morning, against the governor’s wishes, those barges still were sitting idle, even as more oil flowed toward the Louisiana shore … the Coast Guard ordered the stoppage because of reasons that Jindal found frustrating. The Coast Guard needed to confirm that there were fire extinguishers and life vests on board, and then it had trouble contacting the people who built the barges.”

“This is by no means an isolated incident,” adds Allahpundit at Hot Air. “Alabama’s governor is running into the same problems thanks to the alphabet soup of federal agencies attempting to govern the clean-up by committee. If you wanted to know why an oil-spill czar was needed, this is why — because the red tape is so thick, the only way to possibly cut through it is to, er, add a little bit more red tape …”

For Jindal, perhaps, this all offers a new beginning to a national political career that many deemed stillborn after his lackluster official Republican response to Obama’s February 2009 speech to Congress. For Obama, perhaps, it offers a new beginning to an oil-spill strategy that many deemed comatose after Tuesday’s speech (CNN says that a poll it took after the address “offers evidence that the public’s view of Obama’s leadership is following the same pattern that George W. Bush experienced after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005.”) For Joe Barton, it offers either the end of a role as a powerbroker on the House energy committee or the making of a new one as a maverick hero of the small-government right. For BP’s Tony Hayward, it marked the start of a long period of public shaming (although the company seems to be trying to spare him the lead role). And for the people who live near or depend on the Gulf of Mexico, it simply offers more of the same.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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