Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) has evolved over the past 20 years from a maverick conservative willing to cast lonely, defiant votes into a central political figure who cuts deals and raises millions of dollars for his colleagues and who marshaled a small army of lobbyists to secure for himself a powerful chairmanship.
Now head of the Energy and Commerce Committee, with jurisdiction over more than half the legislation that moves through Congress, Barton last week began what could be one of the most difficult and important tasks facing the 109th Congress: drafting and passing major energy legislation after years of failed efforts.
The 55-year-old Texan enters the fray as a determined ally of the industry and as a solid Bush administration loyalist. At the same time, Barton's conservative stance is leavened by a stubbornly independent streak and a willingness to listen to his adversaries -- traits that have won him grudging respect from some Democrats and environmental lobbyists.
If Barton gets his way and succeeds in passing this year's energy bill, there is little doubt that the oil and gas, coal, and nuclear industries will have much to celebrate.
"I'm a strong proponent of any kind of energy resource that can be market-competitive at some point in time. I'm willing to subsidize some of the newer sources till they get up to speed," he said in a recent interview. Underlying his position is concern that "there is a finite amount of oil in the world and we are pushing the limits of production right now."
This means, in Barton's view, that government policy should be geared to increasing energy production of all kinds -- nuclear, coal, hydrogen, natural gas and wind -- and opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
"No one knows the ins and outs of energy policy like Joe Barton," said Red Cavaney, president and chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute.
Barton lacks the flash of his predecessor, former representative W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), but is considered by many to be a shrewd politician and well versed in his committee's wide-ranging issues. His campaign for the chairmanship was so well organized that he scared off any opposition.
A product of rural Ellis County, south of Dallas, Barton graduated from Texas A&M and Purdue universities, earning a master's degree in industrial administration, and worked for Atlantic Richfield Oil and Gas Co. In 1984, Barton ran for an open House seat near Dallas-Fort Worth and won the GOP runoff by 10 votes. He was carried to victory that November by Ronald Reagan and Senate candidate Phil Gramm at the top of the GOP ticket.
Barton's key hires since taking the chairmanship are likely to further secure his ties to the energy industry and to the House leadership.
Barton picked C.H. "Bud" Albright, chief lobbyist for Reliant Energy Inc., a Houston electricity producer, to be the committee's chief of staff. Reliant has contributed more than $160,000 to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and his leadership political action committees, and gave $50,000 to the Roy B Fund run by Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
Albright hired Margaret Caravelli, a lobbyist for producers of MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether), a gasoline additive that is the subject of groundwater-pollution litigation nationwide. Barton and DeLay have been the leading defenders of MTBE producers, insisting they be protected from product-defect lawsuits. Kurt Bilas, former senior counsel at Reliant Energy, has been hired as a committee counsel.
Barton and President Bush share the same pro-business agenda and market-based philosophy. The two have championed tax incentives for the oil and gas industry, and both are advocates of drilling in the Alaska refuge.
The two Texans also have dipped heavily into the same rich pool of campaign contributions from corporate and trade associations, according to a review of campaign finance and lobbying records.
Since 1997, oil, gas, electricity, nuclear, coal and chemical companies have contributed $1.84 million to Barton, more than to any other House member. In the 2000 and 2004 elections, these same energy interests gave Bush $9.2 million, more than to any other presidential candidate.
The top source of energy money for both men -- $103,390 to Barton, $172,922 to Bush -- has been the PAC and employees of Southern Co., the electric utility serving Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.
As committee chairman, Barton will be central to the success of energy legislation as well as other Bush administration legislative initiatives.
The panel has the authority to arbitrate the major battles between polluters and environmentalists, between cable companies and broadcasters, and between drug companies and consumer groups. The committee oversees anti-terrorist security at nuclear plants and port facilities and is responsible for rewriting the 1996 Telecommunications Act. It is responsible for protecting Internet users from identity theft as well as for dealing with the nation's nuclear waste, and determining whether tough "decency" standards should be applied to broadcast and cable television.
The scope of the committee's jurisdiction has turned members into magnets for campaign contributions from every Washington interest from the AT&T Corp. PAC to the Wal-Mart Stores Inc. PAC.
In his quest for the chairmanship, which began in earnest in mid-2003 when Tauzin first signaled his retirement, Barton, a calculating poker player, funneled more than $6 million in campaign contributions to his House colleagues and the National Republican Congressional Committee for the upcoming congressional elections. Barton was host of a $5 million-plus event for the NRCC in March 2003, gave the committee an additional $290,000, made contributions ranging from $500 to $10,000 to 82 House Republicans, and served as the main draw for lobbyists at numerous fundraisers held by junior GOP members.
A network of former Barton staff members-turned-lobbyists -- including Jeffery M. MacKinnon (clients: Reliant Energy, Philip Morris, MCI and at least 36 others), Stephen Sayle (American Chemical Council, AT&T and 19 others) and Stephen Waguespack (Duke Energy, Ford Motor Co. and eight others) -- worked the crucial corporate and trade association community on Barton's behalf.
Perhaps Barton's most telling attribute is an unwavering support for many big energy interests.
Barton demonstrated that allegiance in 2003 when he played an important role in putting together an earlier version of the Bush administration's energy bill that included large tax breaks, $400 million in loan guarantees for an Alaskan pipeline, drilling in the Alaskan wilderness, grants for development of cleaner coal-burning technologies and repeal of regulations of public utilities.
Despite a big push by the administration, Tauzin and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M), the energy legislation failed in the 108th Congress. Part of the reason was Barton's unwillingness to compromise with the Senate and others in the House over two provisions demanded by the industry -- Alaska drilling and special protection of manufacturers of MTBE.
A March 2003 editorial in the Dallas Morning News dubbed Barton "Smokey Joe" for his attempt to protect Ellis County and its cement manufacturers from tough federal environmental standards. The paper's editorial page has not used that moniker since Barton became chairman early this year.
Barton's newly won clout gives him the stature to get phone calls answered by Bush, Vice President Cheney and their top aides, he said. He said that Bush nicknamed him "Big Dog" but that their relationship tends to be far more political and legislative than personal.
"They don't invite me to Kennebunkport or to the ranch in Crawford, unless it's a political event," he said. "But I think outside of that close, close circle, I'd be in that next ring. Certainly among senior members of Congress, I'm as close to him as anyone."
If Barton lives up to his promise to march in lockstep with the House leadership, it will mark a change from his past willingness to defy leaders or chart his own course. He is perhaps best known in the House for his dogged pursuit of three failed legislative goals: a proposal to build a huge and costly superconducting supercollider scientific laboratory in Ellis County, a requirement that all House members take random drug tests and a constitutional amendment to require a two-thirds vote to raise taxes.
In 2001, Barton surprised environmentalists by winning the support of top Republican leaders and key representatives of automobile-producing districts for a modest proposal to raise fuel economy standards for sport-utility vehicles and light trucks. "On that, I'd be a moderate," he said, noting that sometime in the future Congress will "probably need to increase miles-per-gallon standards."
Barton indicated that as a committee chairman serving at the pleasure of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and DeLay, he expects to moderate, if not abandon, his maverick ways.
"When you are a senior member of the majority, you have to try to get the best public policy that is possible and you try to converge the pure philosophical position with the politically doable," he said. "There is no political leader who is way out, who is consistently pure."
Liberal consumer and environmental groups view Barton as an adversary, but their comments reveal some respect for the new chairman.
"Given a different set of circumstances both within his caucus and from his district, he might choose a different set of solutions, because I believe he is a smart guy and I believe he does understand the value of a lot of things like energy efficiency," said the Sierra Club's David Hamilton.
Said Gene Kimmelman, senior director for public policy at Consumers Union: "He's not just suspicious of the government. He's suspicious of corporate excess as well."
As Barton now sets out to juggle some of the toughest issues to come before Congress, he describes his guiding philosophy as "Use market principles when they are applicable, trust the markets and make sure they are open, transparent."
Perhaps more succinctly, a framed motto in his office declares:
FEAR GOD TELL THE TRUTH MAKE A PROFIT.
Researcher Derek Willis contributed to this report.