Video: Baucus openly questions Democrat grandstanding on BP; “I just hope…we know what the heck it is we’re doing”
A moment of candor from Democrat Sen. Max Baucus today at the Senate EPW Committee hearing on the Boxer-Menendez oil spill liability amendments. His comments are directed at grandstanding committee chairwoman Sen. Barbara Boxer, sitting next to him. His soliloquy on the Dems’ rush to pass legislation to send a Big Oil-bashing message comes in the context of debating liability limits and their consequences on smaller companies. More on that in a moment.
BAUCUS: I know we had a hearing on this subject, Madame Chairman. It’s starting to bother me that last year, roughly, we don’t legislate very much. I’m speaking generally, and I’m speaking only from my own personal experience with the Finance Committee. We don’t have any mark-ups any more. We don’t burrow down and ask tough questions of witnesses, trying to establish proper policy, near as much as we used to. Rather, a lot of amendments and bills are more in the nature of message amendments and bills. And I find it disconcerting. I know there was a hearing on this subject, regrettably I wasn’t here for that hearing. But I do have some concern about a total removal, a total unlimited liability. I mean, there was a reason for Price Anderson [nuclear industry liability limits]. I don’t know if those policy reasons are still applicable today or not, but there was a reason, and it was passed. I’m going to vote against this amendment, but I just hope that in the future we know what the heck it is we’re doing. This amendment may have the effect of driving out some smaller companies, I don’t know. It may have the effect of allowing foreign outfits come in, I don’t know. But I do know that the current limit is too low, and the 10 billion dollar limit made sense to me. Unlimited liability may be the best policy. I also understand, on the other hand, that the top insurance companies, not brokers, but insurance companies say that oil companies price all this in anyways when they purchase policies. Now, of course, if it’s unlimited, the policy might be more expensive. I’m going to vote no, but I just urge us to think more deeply about what it is we’re doing on the margin, and little less offering message amendments and bills. I’m not casting disparagements on anybody here, it’s just my impression that I think we’re moving too much in the message direction in this Congress and not enough in the legislative side of it. Now, I’m not going to get into why that’s happened, I have strong reasons as to why that’s happened, but I’m going to avoid that for the moment and just caution us to think more substantively, try to burrow down and find out, so we’re doing a good job of doing what we’re doing.
Now I want to turn to S. 3305, and the Boxer substitute amendments to the Menendez bill. I sit here today profoundly disappointed that my offer of a compromise on liability limits under the Oil Pollution Act (OPA) was rejected. Let me explain what I offered.
First, I think everyone here agrees on a few core principles:
· The leak should be stopped;
· The environmental damage should be mitigated;
· Those suffering economic harm should be made whole; and
· BP must pay.
And on the issue of liability caps under OPA, they must be raised. Sen. Murkowski has proposed a workable solution. I have taken language from her comprehensive oil spill legislation that empowers the President to set liability caps based on several risk factors, including water depth, estimated well pressure, the proximity of a lease to emergency response equipment and infrastructure, as well as a company’s safety record.
In other words, under this approach, the President could make distinctions between different wells and the different circumstances attendant to each-and then set the liability caps accordingly. This is a reasonable approach that allows for careful deliberation, one that balances the need for safety, environmental protection, domestic energy production, and jobs.
I should note that I was even willing to consider unlimited liability in specific cases-that is, if the President believed the risks of a specific project were too high, then a lessee would have to operate without a cap. So we weren’t far apart. Yet, at least at this point, there’s no desire on the other side to reach a compromise-I fear they may want a political issue, not a practical solution. I suppose it was paramount that today’s outcome conform to the talking point that one party stands with Big Oil while the other stands with “the people.”
But the irony is that if the Boxer substitute amendments become law, drilling in the Gulf will dry up, and the only players left standing will be BP and China’s National Offshore Oil Corporation. In other words, Big Oil.
Let’s set aside the liability caps for a moment: I can assure you that Boxer substitute #2, by itself, will push smaller producers out of the Gulf, as it creates so many hurdles, so many unreasonable obstacles, that safety-the ostensible purpose behind this amendment-won’t be an issue, because drilling will be so costly that few will be able to afford it. So who ultimately benefits? That’s right, Big Oil.
Again, let it be known for the record that my colleagues and I sought bipartisan compromise. We wanted the same outcome as in 1990, when OPA passed unanimously after Exxon Valdez. I thought the same could happen here. But now 1990 seems like eons ago.
Madame Chairman, I’m not ready to throw in the towel just yet; I will continue to try work with Democrats so we can reach agreement. That’s because I think the approach we have put before the committee contains the essential elements for compromise: polluters pay, victims are made whole, and the United States continues to have a robust domestic offshore energy industry that creates jobs and lessens our dependence on foreign oil.
Takeaway quotes from Baucus:
“It’s starting to bother me that last year, roughly, we don’t legislate very much. I’m speaking generally, and I’m speaking only from my own personal experience with the Finance Committee. We don’t have any mark-ups any more. We don’t burrow down and ask tough questions of witnesses, trying to establish proper policy, near as much as we used to. Rather, a lot of amendments and bills are more in the nature of message amendments and bills. And I find it disconcerting.”
Bothered by legislation getting rammed through to exploit a crisis? Worried about the unintended consequences of p.r.-driven legislation and politicized government intervention?
Careful there, Sen. Baucus. You’re beginning to sound like a Tea Party activist.
Related must-read: Heritage’s oil spill to-do list for Obama.
And speaking of “message” politicking instead of acting like responsible legislators…
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Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) wanted to fly 10 lawmakers down to the Gulf of Mexico to see the damage caused by BP’s gigantic oil spill first hand.
House Democrats said no.
Scalise’s trip was rejected for a variety of bureaucratic and logistical reasons, but it has also opened a new vein of partisan squabbling over who should be allowed to arrange a trip to view the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Republicans want to be able to take trips using their office spending allowance. But Democrats have heard from the Department of Homeland Security, which has asked that Congress organize trips through committees of jurisdiction, to avoid having to cater to a ton of individual lawmakers in a disaster zone, Democratic aides say. GOP leaders say they’ve heard nothing of this.
The squabbling over who gets to travel to the Gulf on whose dime is the latest sign that congressional oversight of the oil spill oversight from Capitol Hill has been bogged down by partisanship.
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