Who is Joe Barton?

Is the Republican congressman who passed the new energy bill a partisan hack or a bipartisan compromiser? The answer is about as clear as the skies over his district.

November 2005By Comments

JOE BARTON, THE REPUBLICAN CONGRESSMAN from Ennis, was 1 of only 11 members of the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives who voted against providing aid to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. He considers the Kyoto treaty’s restrictions on greenhouse gases to be a direct attack on the U.S. economy. He has tried to exempt his home county, Ellis, south of Dallas, from federal clean-air regulations. He believes that emissions standards for oil refineries should be relaxed, not tightened. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the 56-year-old is just another ideologue who’s chosen to take up permanent residency on the conservative fringe.

 Yet on the day last July when Barton, the rookie chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, rounded up the votes to pass the Bush administration’s long-delayed energy program—something the president himself had been unable to do for the previous four and a half years—the right-wing firebrand was nowhere on display. In his place stood a pragmatist, a politician of considerable skill who had been able to wheel and deal to achieve results, a proponent of the kind of bipartisan compromise that is out of fashion in the most polarized Congress that anyone can remember. When House and Senate negotiators agreed on the final version of the bill, assuring its passage, Republicans and Democrats alike joined in giving Barton a standing ovation.

Barton is surely the most interesting and most important Texas politician you’ve never heard of—unless you happen to live around Dallas and see him occasionally pop up in the news, pulling another shenanigan to help the giant cement plants in his district or railing against the proposed repeal of the Wright Amendment. Like most members of Congress, he’s spent his career in obscurity and hasn’t really escaped it. You may recall that he ran unsuccessfully in a 1993 special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Lloyd Bentsen, a race eventually won by Kay Bailey Hutchison. Otherwise, few Texans know who he is, much less appreciate that the reach of his chairmanship, one of the most powerful in Congress, extends into the daily lives of everybody in America. From gasoline prices to environmental protection, from the escalating cost of health care to the Internet, Barton’s committee claims jurisdiction over some of the biggest items on the national agenda.

Under House rules, he can spend only six years as chairman, and one gets the sense that he already feels under deadline pressure to make his mark. The Energy Act of 2005 was a good start. The Bush administration desperately wanted it, and Democrats hated it, with equal fervor. As it was initially proposed, almost everything about it was controversial: billions of dollars in tax credits, subsidies, and incentives for oil companies; the opening of the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling; the easing of air pollution rules for refineries. Barton was able to get it passed—and get $5.1 billion in goodies he wanted for the energy industry—by allowing the status quo to prevail on the issues Democrats cared about the most. In the bill that passed, ANWR remains closed to drilling, air pollution rules for refineries remain in force, and manufacturers of MTBE, a controversial gasoline additive, are still subject to lawsuits. Also in the bill are plenty of provisions that environmentalists should applaud, like financial incentives for renewable-energy companies, an inducement for utilities to clean up coal plants with a matching grant program and tax credits for using energy-efficient equipment, and other conservation measures (though not stricter fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, which Barton opposes, even though they would reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil—ostensibly the rationale for the bill). “What it does is it keeps the existing workforce in place and existing fuel source in place and we get less pollutants, less emission. It’s a win, win, win, and that would not have been in the bill had it not been for me,” Barton said of the coal plant initiative. “It was not easy to do.”

In the end, what won the trust of most senior Democrats on the committee was Barton’s willingness to let the debate over the bill, and the subsequent negotiations with the Senate, be open to the public. This may sound like a small concession, but such transparency is a rarity in Washington. “He was eminently fair,” the senior Democrat on the committee, John Dingell, of Michigan, told me. “The process was as bipartisan as anything I’ve seen around here.” (Subsequently, Dingell has been critical of Barton for trying to fast-track some of the provisions that didn’t make it into the energy bill.)

Of course, old habits die hard. In July, when he demanded that three prominent scientists concerned about global warming appear before his committee to defend their research, a moderate Republican colleague, Sherwood Boehlert, of New York, complained in a letter to Barton that his purpose “seems to be to intimidate scientists rather than learn from them” and “raises the specter of politicians opening investigations against any scientist who reaches a conclusion that makes the political elite uncomfortable.” Barton’s attitude seemed more amused than angry. “Some of the scientists and Congressman Boehlert reacted like we had poured hot water on the back of a cat,” he told me. “If you are going to accept federal money, you ought to be able to explain what you do with it and back up your methodology and your protocol. I’m not nearly the villain that the environmental groups portray me to be, but I am skeptical of some of their more cataclysmic projections.”

Environmentalists remain just as skeptical of Barton as he is of them. They’re critical, for instance, of a provision in the energy bill offering tax credits for oil and gas exploration, which Barton defends as merely “extensions of existing tax credits” (begging the question of whether the existing credits are a good idea, not to mention whether the oil companies need more incentives right now, with gas prices soaring and ExxonMobil posting a 32 percent increase in second-quarter earnings). At the same time, they aren’t exactly painting Barton as a villain. “He’s not just a windbag,” says Frank O’Donnell, the president of the environmental advocacy group Clean Air Watch. “He makes the system work to his advantage.”

For Barton, a Waco native and a loyal Aggie, it has been a long, slow journey to power—twenty years of amassing seniority and waiting his turn. After earning a master’s degree in industrial engineering from Purdue University, in Indiana, in 1973, he spent eight years working as a plant manager in Ennis. His entrée into national politics came in 1981, early in the Reagan administration, when he was named a White House Fellow and assigned to the Department of Energy. The next year he went to work for Atlantic Richfield. When Phil Gramm gave up his House seat in 1984 to run for the U.S. Senate, Barton was one of four Republicans to enter the primary. He took the runoff by ten votes and went on to win 57 percent in the general election. In photos from that era, he looks geeky, with dark hair, hollow cheeks, and big glasses, but today his face has filled out, his hair is gray, and he has the pallor of a man who has spent way too much time in meetings.

Like all Washington insiders, Barton excels at raising money. I saw the results on a blazing Saturday in August, at a town meeting in Corsicana, where about twenty people showed up. The crowd burst into applause when Barton announced that the Barton Family Foundation would contribute between $200,000 and $300,000 to the Boys and Girls Club in Corsicana. The foundation, it turns out, is a receptacle for special-interest cash, created by Barton because he has many more offers of financial help than he can legally channel into his campaign fund. Lobbyists literally beg to give him money. “When you chair the Energy and Commerce Committee, you’ve got lots and lots of industry groups [who] say, ‘What can we do?’” Barton explains. Campaign finance watchdogs like Craig McDonald, of Texans for Public Justice, regard this “nasty practice” as a way to move “soft” corporate money to powerful people, but it’s been blessed by both the IRS and the user-friendly House Ethics Committee and is an increasingly common congressional endeavor.

Despite the criticism of the energy bill, Barton shows no sign of controversy fatigue. This year, he plans to overhaul Medicaid—he wants to make it exclusively a program for the poor and recast nursing home care as a separate program—and he talks confidently of how the end product will look: “We will change the way we price and reimburse for prescription drugs. We will put in some co-payment requirements. We’ll do something about trying to reform the process for determining assets for senior citizens. We’re not going to throw Grandma out on the street, but we also don’t think Grandma should have a home in Highland Park and be on Medicaid.”

He also intends to revive some of his pet projects that didn’t make it into the new energy law. The shortage of gasoline following Hurricane Katrina provided Barton the opportunity to call again for drilling in Alaska and in coastal areas where it is now prohibited, as well as for construction of new refineries. Confirming the fear of Clean Air Watch’s O’Donnell that Katrina would give Barton an opening “to revive some of his bad old ideas,” Barton has already passed a bill through the House, strongly opposed by Dingell, that would hand over government regulation of refineries to the Department of Energy, which, unlike the Environmental Protection Agency, has no expertise in health and environmental issues.

Washington isn’t the only place where Barton’s environmental views have caused consternation. Back home, he earned the nickname Smoky Joe from environmentalists during a two-year battle over emissions from Ellis County’s cement plants. He intervened with the EPA to relax federal standards for pollution controls at the plants, whose owners, TXI and Holcim, are largely responsible for the $60,500 he has received from the cement industry since the 1998 election cycle, according to the Dallas Morning News. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to carve out Ellis County from the North Texas region that the EPA says is not in compliance with federal clean-air requirements. “He claimed faulty science,” says Wendi Hammond, the executive director of Dallas-based Blue Skies Alliance, who believes Barton has subordinated the air quality of his constituents to the financial interests of his leading campaign contributors.

In a reflective moment, Barton told me that his ideological tendencies softened after Republicans took the majority in Congress. “When you are in the minority, you can be totally pure,” he said. “If you know you are going to get beat, you can take a purist position on everything. When you become part of the majority, especially when you become a leader, a chairman in the majority, you have to govern.” Take the issue of protecting MTBE manufacturers from lawsuits. Here’s how Barton describes his thought process: “I weigh what’s the best policy. You always at least want to know what the best policy is. And then you want to see what’s the best politics you can make out of the best policy. If you think the best policy is acceptable politics, [you ask] ‘Do you want to put the muscle into making that happen?’” In the case of MTBE, Barton realized that what he wanted to do endangered the entire energy bill. “In my judgment,” he said, “that made it worth pulling back from the best policy.”

So who is the real Joe Barton, the ideologue or the pragmatist? The answer, of course, is that he is both—and that’s what makes him so effective, or so dangerous, depending on your point of view. Either way, you would be well advised to heed the words of his longtime adversary Hammond: “He’s not going to give up. He’ll use his position in any way he can.”

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