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.

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

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