Joe Barton: I was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton says he “was Tea Party when Tea Party wasn’t cool.”

Such a statement might seem odd coming from a 61-year-old Republican going on his 26th year representing Texas’ 6th district. Indeed, Barton at first glance would seem to be a member of the stodgy, insider establishment that the Tea Party has set itself against.

But Joe Barton is a lesson in contradictions.

One of the first to sign up for the Tea Party Caucus when Michele Bachmann suggested it, Barton told The Daily Caller that the values he has always held are in line with Tea Party values. “I think I was a Tea Party activist before there was a Tea Party,” he said.

Many would dispute the compatibility of those two positions, but Barton sees no contradiction.

“We, the Republicans, need the Tea Party, and the Tea Party needs Republicans,” he said laughing. “We’re kind of a mutual admiration society.”

Barton is hoping to capitalize on that compatibility — if Republicans take the House in November — to become the next chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. While he currently is the ranking member on the committee, there are a couple of potential obstacles that stand in his path to committee chairman.

First, to do so would require a rule clarification, or a change, depending on whom you ask. A House Republican Conference rule states that no member may serve more than three terms as ranking member or chair of a committee. It does not specify if it is three terms as either ranking member or chair, or if it is three terms at each position. Barton has served one term as committee chair, and two terms as ranking member.

The other potential obstacle is that a new Republican majority would likely be more conservative than the current Republican minority. Wouldn’t a new Republican majority, composed of Tea Party candidates and others propelled to power on a wave of anti-incumbency and anti-insider sentiment, demand a change in Party leadership?

Barton says no.

“I think the Tea Party agenda is very much in tune with the Republican House agenda that leader Boehner has helped put together,” he said, citing the “Pledge to America.” Barton thinks Boehner would be an “effective Speaker,” one who would be able to “implement” the things that Tea Party candidates have made the basis of their campaigns: “lower taxes, less government, less spending, less regulation, less intrusion.”

By that same logic, Barton calls himself “ready to go as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.”

When asked what he would do as committee chair, he replies: “Well, keep in mind that we’ve got to win the majority first.”

“It’s not over till it’s over,” Barton insists. “We’re going to have to work real hard in the next month to make it happen.”

Speaking hypothetically, however, Barton is willing to open up on what he would like to see a Republican majority do. The first thing would be to repeal and replace the health care bill. His second priority is to “do aggressive oversight on the Obama administration, especially the Environmental Protection Agency.”

“I think their endangerment finding is flawed, and we’d look into that pretty aggressively,” he said, referring to a finding by the EPA regarding the health hazard posed by greenhouse gases.
“Number 3,” he continued, “would be a bill on the FCC, explicitly stating that the FCC can’t regulate broadband under Title II.”

“‘Cause regulation stifles innovation, and it also leads to taxation,” he later expanded.

While explaining his agenda, the interview was shortly interrupted.

“This is Congressman Joe Barton,” he could be heard in the background answering another call. “I give a lot of money to Republicans…Could you take me off your call list?”

“It was the Republican Party of Texas asking me for a donation,” he said a minute later, laughing.

Many may remember Barton for his infamous performance this summer when, in the aftermath of the Gulf Coast oil spill, he apologized to BP CEO Tony Hayward for the Obama administration’s “shakedown” earlier that day. (Earlier in the day, BP had reached a settlement agreement with the Obama administration that created a $20 billion fund to pay for damages resulting from the spill.)

But for a man who once caused so much outrage, Barton is utterly charming. His answers to questions are peppered with inspiring sound bytes about America. It is easy to see how he has remained in office for 26 years. Even his criticism is tactfully worded: “The liberals in congress aren’t bad people,” he said at one point. “They really believe that government is the answer. And I strongly disagree with that.”

This tact was noticeably absent in the House session on June 17 when Barton apologized to BP’s CEO. But perhaps it has played a role in the clean up. Indeed, at this point, the incident seems to be all but forgotten.

Explaining the incident to TheDC, Barton clarified: “I was not apologizing for [BP’s] behavior. I was simply stating that the United States is a country of law and due process. Big companies, little companies, and private citizens should all have a right to that due process and shouldn’t be subjected to what BP had been subjected to in their discussion with the White House. The thing that sets us apart from some of the less democratic countries is that everybody is treated equally, and everybody does have a right to their day in court; whether you’re a big corporation or an individual.”

What is clear is that Joe Barton is a survivor, a man who has the energy and finesse to work within the system, to reconcile opposites, and to outlast his critics.

“I’m still more present tense than past tense,” he said. “I’m a lot more interested in what I can do in the next Congress to help the country than what I’m going to be remembered for when I leave.”