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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The Barton Apology, Stretched Too Far

In a new ad, the Democratic National Committee inaccurately accuses "the Republican Party" of endorsing Rep. Joe Barton’s notorious public apology to the CEO of BP.

The ad goes too far when it tries to grease all Republicans with the same oily mess the Texas Republican made for himself at the June 17 hearing on the Gulf oil spill. Some Republicans have voiced similar positions. But other leading GOP lawmakers have made clear that Barton and the others don’t speak for the party.

"The Republican Party, standing up for Big Oil and apologizing to BP," says the ad’s narrator, after we see a clip of Barton, ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, telling BP’s Tony Hayward he was sorry. Near the end of the ad we see Barton again, at the same hearing, calling the $20 billion escrow fund BP agreed to set up at the behest of the White House "a shakedown." The fund is to be used to compensate victims of the oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico.

What we don’t see is Barton apologizing for his apology later the same day, practically forced to do so at knifepoint by … Republicans:

Barton: 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. 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.

And several House Republican leaders – Minority Leader John Boehner and Reps. Mike Pence of Indiana and Eric Cantor of Virginia – quickly issued their own statement distancing themselves from Barton’s first apology:

Boehner, Pence and Cantor: The oil spill in the Gulf is this nation’s largest natural disaster and stopping the leak and cleaning up the region is our top priority. Congressman Barton’s statements this morning were wrong. BP itself has acknowledged that responsibility for the economic damages lies with them and has offered an initial pledge of $20 billion dollars for that purpose.

This does get a little complicated, because just a day earlier, Rep. Tom Price, who heads the House’s 114-member Republican Study Committee that includes Reps. Cantor and Pence, had issued a statement calling White House pressure on BP to set up the fund a "Chicago-style shakedown." But Price also said that BP should be held responsible for damages, just not through a compelled escrow fund.

The ad flashes clips of other Republicans appearing to take BP’s side. Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul is shown saying, "I think that sounds really un-American," supposedly referring to the idea of holding BP accountable. But what Paul was actually talking about, in an interview on ABC’s "Good Morning America," was the tone of President Obama’s criticism of the company:

Paul: What I don’t like from the president’s administration is this sort of ‘I’ll put my boot heel on the throat of BP.’ I think that sounds really un-American in his criticism of business.

And Cantor is shown saying, "Absolutely," in response to a question about whether Obama should stop "demonizing" BP. Cantor did say that to the Financial Times:

Cantor, June 11: Instead of seeing what we’re seeing out of the administration, which has been utter outrage, blame, villainization, cursing on TV about what’s going on. Instead of that, let’s try and have some level-headed leadership …

Host: So you are telling President Obama to stop demonizing

Cantor: Absolutely, how does that help? There is going
to be plenty of time for demonizing, punishing, what have you, ok? We’ve got to stop the gushing of oil.

But, as we noted above, Cantor later joined a strong statement of disapproval of Barton’s apology.

As for Rep. Michele Bachmann, the DNC ad shows her calling the escrow fund "extortion" at the Heritage Foundation on June 15. Bachmann’s use of the word has also been attacked by Minnesota state Sen. Tarryl Clark, a Democrat, who is trying to unseat her. Clark’s ad falsely claims that "Michele Bachmann calls making BP pay for the clean up ‘extortion.’ ”

Actually, Bachmann wasn’t referring to making BP cover the costs of the cleanup when she used the term. The cleanup — as stipulated under the terms of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 — will be paid for by BP, as we’ve previously written. Instead, Bachmann’s comment had to do with how other types of claims, such as loss of income by fishermen and others, would be paid.

And Bachmann, like Price and some other Republicans, opposes the creation of a government-controlled fund — not the idea of paying compensation to victims for economic damages. Here’s what she told Minnesota Public Radio on June 16:

Bachmann: It just seems to me that the president’s priorities are wrong right now, because he continues to focus on blaming and on extorting money out of a company rather than letting the courts deal with making victims whole, which they should, and actually stemming the leak in the Gulf.

That same day, she told CNN’s John King that BP is at fault and should pay all damages, and elaborated:

Bachmann: BP clearly is at fault here, they need to pay every last dime of damage. … But at the same time we don’t want these payouts to become political. We don’t think it’s a good idea for the federal government to see private industry as essentially a piggy bank for the federal government. So every claim needs to be paid out, and we actually had a process set up through the court system – that’s why this was kind of an unusual process. We already had a system set up to deal with claims, in the case of oil spills, where a court, independently, without any political implications would pay out legitimate claims. 

As we have noted previously, there are some Republicans who agree with Barton’s orginal statement that the deal setting up the $20 billion fund was "a shakedown." But is there enough evidence to say that kowtowing to oil companies "is how the Republicans would govern," as the ad concludes?

That’s simply a rig too deep.

Viveca Novak and Michael Morse