By Dana Milbank
Friday, June 18, 2010; A02
Everybody knew there would be a spectacle when BP's chief executive, Tony Hayward, came to testify before Congress. Capitol Police lined the driveway to the Rayburn building, scores of photographers staked out every corner, and aspiring hecklers slept in line overnight to be assured they would get a seat in the hearing room.
But what nobody could have anticipated is that the spectacle would have little to do with the Englishman at the witness table. The radioactivity came, rather, from the top row of the dais, where Joe Barton, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, gave a most unusual opening statement.
"I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday," the Texan said of BP's offer, under pressure from President Obama, to set aside $20 billion to pay damages to Gulf Coast residents ruined by the oil spill. "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."
Heads of the other committee members spun, cartoon-like, in the direction of Barton. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) froze, her coffee cup suspended equidistant between tabletop and lips. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the panel chairman, scrunched his face and shook his head as though he had just witnessed a bloody wreck.
In a sense, he had. And Barton wasn't done. The $20 billion BP would pay to those who are now out of work because of the spill is a "slush fund," he said. Then he did the unthinkable: He apologized to the man whose company is destroying a large piece of the nation. "I apologize," he said, adding that he doesn't "want to live in a country" that does such things to poor BP.
There, in front of the cameras, one of the most senior Republicans in the House had suffered an acute attack of Obama Derangement Syndrome. The president had just secured from a British oil company a promise to set aside $20 billion to help devastated Americans -- and Barton had sided with the firm that has devastated the Gulf of Mexico.
Suddenly, the hearing was not about Hayward. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) chucked his opening statement and instead gave an extemporaneous address rebuking Barton. Rep. Michael Burgess (Tex.), the ranking Republican on the subcommittee conducting the hearing, felt the need to tell Hayward: "I am not going to apologize to you."
Even Hayward distanced himself from the man who had just apologized to him. "I certainly didn't think it was a slush fund," the executive said.
Had Barton resisted his instinct to apologize to BP, he probably would have lost the urge by the end of the hearing. Hayward proved himself to be a most unsympathetic witness, walking into the committee hearing room with something resembling a saunter and listening to members of the panel with something resembling a smirk. His answers suggested he thinks his American cousins are a little slow.
"I'm not a cement engineer, I'm afraid," he said when asked about the well casing. "I'm not an oceanographic scientist," he said when asked about the oil plumes. "I'm not a drilling engineer or a technically qualified engineer," he replied when pressed further for answers.
By the end, the Q&A had become little more than a collection of "I don'ts" (55 mentions), "I'm nots" (42), "I can'ts" (28) and scores more "I wasn'ts," "I haven'ts" and the like.
Finally, about five hours after the hearing began, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) came up with a question Hayward could answer. "Is today Thursday?" the congressman asked.
" 'Tis Thursday," the Englishman answered.
The performance brought a rare convergence of opinion from Republicans and Democrats alike as condemnations rained down: "I find that irresponsible. . . . You're copping out. . . . You're stalling, you're insulting our intelligence." Hayward spun his pen with his fingers and flapped his knees back and forth under the table as if doing a frog kick. This was not an ideal day to be apologizing to BP and its CEO.
In recent days, Republicans had begun to side with the company against the Obama administration's efforts to hold it accountable. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said BP "shouldn't have to be fleeced." Sarah Palin said "we can't afford to demonize" the firm.
At Thursday's hearing, Rep. Parker Griffith (R-Ala.) gamely asserted that the spill "is not going to be the worst thing that's ever happened to America" and mentioned that "the greatest environmental disaster in America has been cigarettes."
But efforts to defend BP ceased during the hearing, as Hayward squandered any goodwill that had been shown to the company after Wednesday's decision to set up the escrow fund.
Barton, who departed the room shortly after his apology and was later rebuked by GOP leaders, returned late in the hearing to revise and extend his remarks. "If anything I've said this morning has been misconstrued," he said, "I want to apologize for that misconstrued -- misconstruction."
The Texan shouldn't have been so hard on himself. It's no small feat to turn Tony Hayward into the second-least-popular person in the room.