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A GOP chorus of Joe Bartons on the BP oil spill -- Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

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Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, June 22, 2010; 1:00 PM

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.<br><br>Read today's column <a href='http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/21/AR2010062103699.html'>A GOP chorus of Joe Bartons on the BP oil spill</a> in which Gene writes: "Joe Barton is not alone. The Texas congressman's lavish sympathy for BP -- which he sees not as perpetrator of a preventable disaster but as victim of a White House "shakedown" -- is actually what passes for mainstream opinion among conservative Republicans today."

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Eugene Robinson: Hi, everyone. Welcome to our weekly therapy session. It's a busy day, as usual. Today's column was about the outrage that Rep. Joe Barton and members of the Republican Study Committee feel at the fact that BP has agreed to put $20 billion in escrow to compensate victims of the oil spill. Imagine that: The president called BP on the carpet and demanded that the company honor its legal and contractual obligations. Shocking! Oh, the humanity! Meanwhile, Rolling Stone's profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal has a lot of people running around town with their hair on fire. The general has been summoned home tomorrow to be chewed out -- and maybe fired -- for his insubordination. I think his position is untenable. Then again, I've had doubts from the beginning about his counterinsurgency strategy. And I really have no patience with generals who try to undermine civilian authority. This is McChrystal's second offense -- remember the pre-surge speech in London, which seemed designed to limit President Obama's options -- and as far as I'm concerned, two strikes and he's out. What do you think?

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Don't you agree that it is potentially unconstitutional?: The 5th Amendment states that no person shall "be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law". Clearly due process was not served here unless you think the president is an autocrat with whom due process lies (and the constitution establishes that this is not the case). While the $20 billion escrow is certainly palatable to Democrats and Republicans alike, there is a very legitimate question of constitutionality. And your protest raises an issue: Do you think that democratically popular opinion is enough justifies the undermining of due process? And how does that fit into your opinion of Jim Crow Laws, which were popular in the South, but nonetheless deprived black Americans of due process?I would completely agree that the $20 billion escrow would be completely constitutional if BP independently volunteered it without political threats. But are you naive enough to believe that this is the case?

Eugene Robinson: You state the "poor BP" argument well, but it just doesn't hold water, I'm afraid. I'm with (gulp) Bill O'Reilly on this one -- he has stridently defended the president's action in getting BP to set aside the $20 billion compensation fund. Indeed, the president had no authority to "deprive" the company of this money, and indeed he did not. BP agreed to put up the cash because it was going to have to pay at least that much anyway and because not doing so would have further damaged its position in the American market. The company made the kind of private-enterprise, free-market decision that I would have thought you'd applaud.

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Legal Process is the Issue : Mr. Robinson-I was disappointed with your column. I consider myself a liberal Republican and I agree with the sentiment of Congressman Barton. The concern is the lack of respect for our legal system that certain politicians show. The issue is not BP - it's bigger than that - it's the government's seizure of the funds of private citizens (stockholders -- many of whom are Americans) and private (and nonetheless foreign) corporations. We would like to know what President Obama threatened to get BP to do this given that there is no legal authority. What if Britain seized the assets of an American company - can you imagine the outrage? The fact is, there is a legal process (nevermind the 5th Amendment) to deal with the BP and claims. President Obama has chosen to circumvent that process - just as President Bush chose to circumvent the legal process in Guantanamo. All Republicans, including Barton want BP to pay for the damage they've done -- just in a legal way. We can't just pick and choose the laws we like.

Eugene Robinson: Sorry, but there just wasn't. BP negotiated a deal that it felt was in the best interests of its shareholders. Period.

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BP Escrow Account: I have a neighbor who was a victim of the Valdez oil spill. After 20 years, he's still waiting on his check from Exxon. I think the escrow account that the administration arranged is one of the few things relative to the oil spill that has been handled well. Why is the administration not being more aggressive in defending itself?

Eugene Robinson: I think the administration knows it has public opinion on its side (to say the least).

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Is BP Getting Off Easy?: I'm as stunned as you by the "shakedown" comments from so many on the right. From my perspective, if there's any fair criticism here, it's at the complete other end of the spectrum - that the amount BP is offering is too small. Do you really think the amounts they're agreeing to set aside are going to be large enough to undo the damage, given the tremendous impact the spill will have on our ecology and our economy? If it becomes clear that it's not enough, can the administration demand more? Or is this agreement more like a binding settlement, preventing further repercussions?

Eugene Robinson: A very good question. Here's my understanding: The $20 billion figure is not a cap on BP's exposure, and if more is needed, the company will be expected to pay. But in terms of individual claimants -- fishermen, shrimpers, etc. -- my assumption is that if they take a settlement from the fund that Ken Feinberg will be running, they'll probably have to agree not to sue for those damages. In other words, I think that if they say "Pay me X dollars for being out of work for a four-month period" then they can't turn around and sue BP for further compensation for those four months of loss of livelihood.

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Jindal's Call to End Moratoriam: Gene, Bobby Jindal is attempting to end the moratoriam on Gulf oil drilling even though the spill hasn't been capped and the cause of the spill hasn't been determined. Is Louisiana that beholden to oil that they cannot survive a reasonable halt or is Jindal purely playing politics on this issue? Also, in your view, has Jindal been DOING enough? Not saying the right things, not showing the proper amount of anger, but actually DOING the right things?

Eugene Robinson: Yes, Louisiana is that beholden to oil. And I think Jindal has done pretty well, given the resources at his disposal.

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Political aftermath: In the wake of this continued disaster in the Gulf and the overwhelmingly negative optics the media has brought to drilling and to fossil fuels in general, there does seem to be a renewed push by Liberals and Democrats for strong energy legislation with a clear path to getting off oil. But, the ultimate question remains: Is the fallout from this catastrophe enough to garner the votes needed to over come the inevitable Republican filibuster, and still pass meaningful reform?

Eugene Robinson: Depends on what you mean by "meaningful." My definition of truly meaningful would involve something like a carbon tax, and it's hard for me to see how that is possible this year. But maybe some sort of cap and trade arrangement can be achieved for some sectors, like the electric power business. So maybe a partial achievement in 2010.

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Gulf disaster and government action: I don't understand why Ken Salazar still has a job. The President announces a moratorium and Interior keeps approving leases, including deep water leases, with the same absence of environmental review or adequate accident planning that was true for Macondo. Salazar prejudged the results of the Commission by saying that this is just a "pause" in drilling. The President said earlier that he thought drilling could be done safely, although he never said who told him that, (and why he believed it despite recent drilling accidents around the world), but it is reasonable to think it was Salazar. Salazar is to the environment what the Goldman Sachs tribe around Obama is to financial regulation--trouble. Do you have any insights on whether the President approves of Salazar and intends to keep him on?

Eugene Robinson: My sense is that Ken Salazar's job is not in trouble at the moment, but that the White House will be paying more attention to what's happening at Interior.Speaking of jobs that ARE in jeoparty, press secretary Robert Gibbs just described McChrystal's transgression as "profound" and make a point of saying that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is "bigger than one person." Doesn't sound good for the Runaway General...

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Thankful for that: If nothing else, Stanley McChrystal helped the media remember that despite the on-going oil leak, USA is still engaged in active combat in two nations, Iraq and Afghanistan. Thankful for that.

Eugene Robinson: Yes, people tend to forget. I hope people pay attention to what's been going on in Afghanistan, because the news has not been good.

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BP and Joe Barton: Has it occurred to anyone that the same people who agree with Rep. Barton about the "shakedown" are the same ones who rail against "frivolous lawsuits" and demand tort reform? In the absence of an administrative compensation program, how else but lawsuits would victims seek compensation?In truth, Republicans don't want injuries to be prevented through tighter regulation, and they don't want victims to be compensated afterward, either through an administrative process or through traditional legal means. What they do want is a free pass for their benefactors.When it comes to corporations, the group that shouts the loudest about "law and order" and "accountability" wants neither.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks for reminding everyone of the, shall we say, contradiction. It is kind of amusing to hear all these folks clamoring for... lawsuits! More lawsuits! Bigger lawsuits!

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Republican response to the "White House pressure" for the $20 billion: How is it that your voice is the only one showing where the Republican Party stands on this issue. Where is the rest of the media, where are the people that are horrified at this callous response by the Republican Party? What is the difference between Tony Hayward and the Republican Party?

Eugene Robinson: Tony Hayward's grammar is better...

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Obama Inaction on Stopping the Spill: Gene, thanks very much for your columns and TV appearances, which are always fresh and illuminating.My question is this: Does President Obama know how much his inaction on stopping the spill is damaging the country and his own political standing? Many folks, including the writer of an op ed piece in today's NYT, have suggested using the U.S. Navy to stop the leak using conventional explosives. By doing nothing, Mr. Obama and our government appear, in the words of Richard Nixon, like pitiful helpless giants.

Eugene Robinson: It's certainly not true that the president is "doing nothing." But as you know, I've been critical of the administration's response, in that I think it should have been more urgent and, well, bigger in every way. You may know more than I do about the prospects of stopping the leak with explosives, but it sounds kind of dicey to me. I do think, though, that more assets should be deployed to get every single drop of oil out of the environment that can possibly be removed. I don't think the current operation, with BP essentially doing the command and control, has the capacity to do this.

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Historical precedent: This isn't the first time a company has been hauled in front of the president and told to what to do. Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 warned mine owners that if they didn't settle the coal strike going on (threatening the public good), he'd federalize the mine and solve it for them. Next thing you know, a deal is struck. Obama hasn't even come close to that kind of response.I really hate the idea that a corporation is given the same rights as actual people and their needs are put ahead of ours. If Obama was saying that Tony Hayward had to pay the $20 billion out of his own pocket, then yeah, you could make the 5th Amendment argument. But I don't see how telling a corporation it has to pay for its mistakes is a violation.

Eugene Robinson: It's not a Fifth Amendment violation -- especially since BP is legally and contractually obliged to pay these damages. In the past, presidents have told companies what to do, ordered striking workers in vital sectors back to work, seized foreign assets for a variety of reasons. This isn't even close to a vigorous exercise of presidential power. Give us all a break.

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THREE STRIKES FOR MCCHRYSTAL: "This is McChrystal's second offense..."No, Eugene, this is actually the General's third strike. His first was, incredibly, overlooked regarding his direct involvement in the Pat Tillman cover-up.

Eugene Robinson: I forgot the Tillman thing. My candidate for the third strike was that earlier today the general seemed to be shifting blame to his civilian press aide -- now, former press aide -- who okayed the Rolling Stone interview. The press guy, Duncan Boothby, resigned this morning. What, McChrystal didn't know what Rolling Stone was? He thought the reporter was going to do a puff piece? Not a smooth move on Boothby's part to let the whole thing happen, but ultimately it was McChrystal's fault.

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Barton Backer: I'm with Barton. This isn't BP's fault. This is nature vs. nature. The oil in the Earth is battling with the water on top of it. This is mother nature's battle. Let's let her sort it out. And frankly, I don't see enough people being outraged by the fact that their oil is being tainted by salt water. When I go to fill up my Humvee I better not see any Gulf shrimp in my tank - or I will be livid!!!!Now pardon me as I go back to my job as chief scientist for the GOP.

Eugene Robinson: Oil-Marinated Shrimp! Yum!

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Oil Spill: I have never believed that capping the well and walking away from it is in BP's best financial interest. Containment and controlled extraction seems to be the mantra of the day. Say it ain't so Eugene.

Eugene Robinson: Seems to me that it's in BP's interest to handle this situation in a way that the oil can still ultimately be extracted and, uh, sold.

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TARP: I'm curious if everyone would consider what Secretary Paulson did as a "shakedown" when he pressured all the banks take TARP money so that none of them would be singled out?Or when he and Bernake pressured Bank of America to merge with Merrill Lynch after threatening to have their officers and board members fired if they didn't comply.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks for the reminder. You are absolutely right -- I've spoken with several of the CEO's who were pressured to take TARP money even though they claim to this day that they didn't need it. Paulson threatened them in terms that the Godfather would have understood -- and I have no problem with that. Paulson was doing his job, and while I don't agree with all his actions, I have no problem with his using the power of his office to get things done.

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Boothby: Was Boothby the one who made the Bite Me remark about Biden? If I was that reporter in the interview I would have turned to his aide and said "what are you a child?" No matter what you think of Biden, that was such an unprofessional and moronic thing to say. Even worse, it wasn't remotely witty or clever. He might as well have called him a big poopy pants.

Eugene Robinson: Really. It's surprising that they didn't actually sink to the level of knock-knock jokes. But they got close. (And I don't know whether Boothby called anybody a poopy pants.)

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Extortion vs policital influence: You don't address whether the President pressured BP to create the fund. The threat to wield government power in order to generate action from BP could be viewed as extortion, couldn't it? Or do you view this as a normal use use of policital influence? Can't an action taken for the "interests of the public" still be illegal?

Eugene Robinson: So, you object to the fact that the President of the United States has a certain amount of power and influence? Or do you object to the fact that President Barack Obama has a certain amount of power and influence? When presidents say "I want you to do X," usually people try to comply -- either because they want to cooperate or because they realize that the president is a powerful man and would rather be on his good side than his bad side. This has always been the case. I wonder why people are so upset when Obama exercises the same kind of power that every president before him has exercised?

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Blowing up the oil well: When I heard this "solution" the first time, I laughed out loud. Everything they've tried so far hasn't worked - and we got into this mess by not looking at the worst case scenario. But proponents of this idea don't seem to have absorbed either of these facts.If you look at the order of things BP tried, it was pretty smart - they tried things in the order in which the most alternative solutions would still exist in the event what they were trying failed. Once you blow up the well - what's the next step if that doesn't work? Pretty much nothing. Given that, we should try pretty much everything else first.

Eugene Robinson: I agree. It could be that blowing up the well might provide a quick, definitive solution. But if it didn't work, seems to me it could be much harder to contain ANY of the flow. I'd be reluctant to give that order.

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the 20 billion Shakedown: Would you please tell me how much Obama's appointed payout czar is making for his law firm to handle this cash, and who is going to oversee him to make sure the money gets into the hands of the people hurt in Gulf? Seems no one in the 5th column is asking this question, so I'll ask you. Please respond either with the answers to the above questions or I do not know. No spin necessary. Thank you

Eugene Robinson: I don't know but I'd like to find out. I think Feinberg -- who was Bush's appointed payout czar after 9/11 -- did a good job. But I'd be interested to know how much he gets paid for doing this.

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President Obama and Democrats' Political Capital: Do you think that President Obama and the Democrats have wasted their political capital, which they had right after the presidential election. The D's cannot seem to unite enough to overcome the R's. Do you think the next elections will bring back more of the same people and ideas that have caused a lot of our current problems? It is so despressing!

Eugene Robinson: No reason to be depressed. The fact is that while the Democrats have very large majorities in both houses of Congress, these majorities include substantial numbers of conservative Democrats whose views reflect those of their constituents. It's a real problem for those who would like to see a more robustly progressive agenda. But it's not as much of a problem as being in the minority...

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carbon tax: A carbon tax will do nothing but hurt the folks who can't afford it, thus driving up unemployment. Tht's not meaninful at all... meaningful would be forcing the auto makers to finally produce vehicles with 50+ MPG at a minimum for a start. Since the 1960's, the average MPG has not progressed enough.

Eugene Robinson: Raising fuel efficiency standards does help a lot. And yes, it would be counterproductive to impose a carbon tax while the economy is still struggling to get back on its feet. But ultimately, I think there won't be alternative energy sources until there are market incentives, and there won't be market incentives as long as oil is so cheap.

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RE: payout czar : Per my recollection, payout czar didn't draw a salary for 9/11. I would be very surprised if he draws a salary for this. He doesn't "need" to money. But, the collective we are so jaded, we always think money is the driver.

Eugene Robinson: A couple of people have written to say that Feinberg worked the 9/11 payout without compensation. I'll try to check.

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Moratorium: Just saw that the judge lifted the moratorium on off-shore drilling. Where does that leave the administration and what can be done now?

Eugene Robinson: I just heard that. Where does that leave the whole thing now? Beats me. You'll recall that the administration was ready to proceed with some new offshore drilling before the Deepwater Horizon blowout. But clearly the White House wanted to revisit the safety question, and I assume there will be some kind of appeal. So stay tuned.But there's no need to stay tuned to this discussion, alas, since my time is up. I'll be back next week, though, same time, same place. Please drop by.


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