NOTE: This includes material published in earlier posts. It is published here as the electronic version of today’s newspaper column.
Tom Price, the GOP congressman from Roswell, was impatient.
With oil still pouring into the Gulf and President Obama about to address the nation, Price wanted action. In fact, as chair of the 115-member House Republican Study Committee, Price demanded it.
“Tonight, President Obama needs to finally take charge of this disaster and show some real leadership,” Price said.
That night, when Obama laid out his battle plan in the Gulf, it included a demand that BP contribute $20 billion to an escrow account to compensate shrimpers, fishermen, motel owners, waitresses and others whose livelihoods are threatened.
The next day, in a meeting at the White House, BP agreed to the account, producing the first geniune good news that those in the Gulf have had for weeks. But rather than laud the step, Price and the RSC chose to condemn it, accusing Obama of “Chicago-style shakedown politics.”
“… in an administration that appears not to respect fundamental American principles, it is important to note that there is no legal authority for the president to compel a private company to set up or contribute to an escrow account,” Price complained on behalf of RSC members, which include Georgia Republicans Jack Kingston, John Linder, Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey and Lynn Westmoreland.
Another RSC member, U.S. Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, then picked up Price’s “shakedown” language in a committee hearing the next day.
“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,” Barton said. He went on to apologize to BP CEO Tony Hayward, saying he was ashamed to see the company subjected to pressure that “again, in my words, amounts to a shakedown.”
Some Republican leaders have since tried to depict Barton as a rogue out of line with mainstream GOP thought, going so far as to force Barton to issue an apology for his apology. They also threatened his post as top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the oil industry.
Yet Barton’s first apology was the sincere one, the heartfelt one. And you can’t dismiss his sentiment as outside the GOP mainstream when it closely echoes that of Price and the RSC, which claims almost two-thirds of House Republicans as members.
In fact, Barton’s attitude permeates the conservative movement, from pundits to politicians.
Stuart Varney of Fox Business Network likened Obama’s action to those of Venezuela’s dictator, claming “it is Hugo Chavez-like, is it not, to seize a private company’s assets?”
Rush Limbaugh said the U.S. government “may as well be a branch of organized crime.”
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich also likened Obama’s actions to extortion. “What it says to the world is, ‘Be very careful about investing in the United States, because the political class may take the money away from you, if the trial lawyers don’t get it first’,” the former Georgian said.
That’s such a strange thought. “The political class” is not taking money from BP. The company forfeited $20 billion and more by endangering the livelihoods of tens of thousands of innocent people in the Gulf, and its executives know it.
Ken Feinberg, who oversaw the 9/11 compensation fund, has been named to handle the Gulf escrow account as well. “Do not underestimate the emotionalism and the frustration and the anger of people in the Gulf uncertain of their financial future,” he reported in TV interviews Monday. “It’s very pronounced. I witnessed it firsthand last week.”
For those in the Gulf, this is crunch time, the moment when you discover who’s really on your side and, in the case of Price, Barton and others, who’s not.