The danger of armchair lawyering

Sarah Field Contributor
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At last week’s Congressional hearings, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) apologized to BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward, for what he described as a government shakedown of $20 billion of BP’s assets. In typical Washington fashion, outcry from both political parties quickly forced Barton to produce a second apology, where he laid the blame for the problem squarely on BP.

BP is, in all likelihood, chiefly responsible for this disaster. At the same time, the Obama administration’s habit of dragging CEOs before Congress can certainly be seen as pattern of highly calculated government shakedowns.

Just ask Mr. Toyoda. Or the CEO of Humana, who was investigated by the administration, because his company warned customers about the pitfalls of ObamaCare. Or the former CEO of GM who has forced to resign by the administration. A pattern is clearly emerging.

No one should look beyond these facts. However, the major problem with our discussion of the “Barton fiasco” is what no one is actually discussing – the fact that Congress and the Obama administration are shifting the debate to a “blame game,” instead of helping to solve the problem.

Think about it. Preparing for a Congressional investigation takes an incredible amount of time and resources. I know nothing about BP’s preparations, but my guess is that it probably took at least 50 people more than three days to dig up research, anticipate questions, write answers, and calculate an effective legal and PR strategy. All of this preparation takes people – including key decision makers – outside of the chain of authority. In other words, if they’re prepping for a Congressional investigation, they can’t solve the problem.

It would be one thing to wait until a viable solution had been proposed and implemented. It is, however, a far more dangerous thing to conduct a hearing now (ironically, when voters are starting to pay attention to this November’s 2010 Congressional elections) and divert BP’s resources away from fixing the problem.

The second reason why the hearings are so counterproductive is that our legal system already provides a time-tested process for judging responsibility. On Sunday’s Meet the Press, Obama’s pay czar, Ken Feinberg, explained that President Obama told him to “[g]et these claims paid, get them played–paid quickly,” so he’s going to “make sure that every eligible, legitimate claim is paid and paid quickly.”

Then, in a rare example of truth-searching journalism, Meet the Press host, David Gregory, asked the logical question: “What’s legitimate, what’s illegitimate?” Feinberg stumbled with an answer of “indirect” versus “direct” claims, but only after giving the ambiguous example of a seafood restaurant in Las Vegas that, in the end, did absolutely nothing to clear up the confusion.

Our judicial system exists for many reasons, but one of the most obvious is that an independent judiciary is in the best position to consider the facts of a case, look at the evidence, then determine the legitimacy of legal claims. This is, after all, what they do all day.

On the other hand, an Obama administration-run victim compensation fund would be stacked with inexperienced, unaccountable government bureaucrats who are learning the process as they go along. They’re supposed to make fine distinctions between “direct” and “indirect” claims, yet they don’t have the expertise to do so. We don’t do armchair quarterbacking, so why should Congress encourage the Obama administration’s armchair lawyering?

I’ll keep in G-rated and won’t quote the President on the need to fix the problem. But, the point is that all immediate efforts should be focused on plugging this hole. Once we do this, we can then turn to compensating the victims, remediating the environmental damage, and laying out blame. Everyone who has been damaged should have their day in court, with the expectation that lawful claims will be considered by independent, experienced judges, and the legitimate victims will get every dollar they deserve.

Whether Rep. Barton was right to apologize for a government shakedown of BP is really beside the point. The real problem is that Congress and the Obama administration are standing directly in the way of a solution.

Sarah Field is the Director of Policy and General Counsel of Liberty Central, Inc., a non-profit organization whose primary objective is to harness the power of citizen voices, inform everyday Americans with knowledge, and activate them to preserve liberty.