Skip to content

Barton In Line For Energy Gavel

With a wink and a nod from Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) has quietly created an informal whip operation and begun seeking support from GOP leaders and rank-and-file Republicans to become the next chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee when Tauzin retires.

Barton’s move comes as allies of his potential chief rival for the post, Rep. Mike Oxley (R-Ohio), say that Oxley is happy at the helm of the Financial Services Committee and would rather serve out the remaining three years of his tenure there than launch his second try for the Energy and Commerce gavel in four years.

“He’s not itching for a fight,” said one Oxley ally.

But Oxley’s decision could come at a price: He wants jurisdiction over two key financial matters now under the Energy and Commerce panel.

Barring an unexpected reversal, the twin developments leave Barton — an independent-minded conservative who has frequently clashed with other Republicans and party leaders — as the heir apparent at the Energy and Commerce Committee when Tauzin steps down.

“I’ve made it clear that when there is an opening, I’m going to apply,” said Barton, who would be the first Texan to chair the committee since former Rep. Sam Rayburn (D).

Tauzin is widely expected to leave Congress by the end of the year to become Hollywood’s top lobbyist in Washington.

Movie industry lobbyists say that Tauzin, working through a Los Angeles agent, is nearing a deal with the Motion Picture Association of America that would give him a $1.5 million salary, a 24-hour car and driver — as well as residences in Los Angeles and New York.

Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson maintains that the current committee chairman has no plans to retire. He also insisted that the chairman has not told Barton that he is leaving Congress.

“Joe Barton is a very smart politician,” Johnson said. “He is getting ready just in case based on these rumors and not because Billy flashed him the green light.”

Still, lawmakers and lobbyists involved in Barton’s campaign say the Texan began laying the groundwork for a campaign after getting Tauzin’s blessing.

In the past week, Barton asked a handful of trusted Republican lawmakers to help him round up support for his bid on the 29-member, internal GOP panel that will nominate the next committee chairman.

Barton — the fourth-ranking Republican on the committee behind Tauzin, Oxley and Rep. Mike Bilirakis (R-Fla.) — also is soliciting the support of GOP leadership, members of the Energy and Commerce Committee and the House at large.

“Barton has been lobbying for this for a long time and he’s obviously made a strong play,” said a source close to the Republican leadership. “He has worked the leadership heavily and worked members of the Steering Committee.”

Meanwhile, a group of former Barton aides and K Street allies are lining up support for Barton in corporate offices downtown.

That group includes Jeff MacKinnon with Ryan, Phillips, Utrecht and MacKinnon; Steve Sayle of the Dutko Group; Bud Albright of Reliant Resources Inc.; and Kathy Gillespie, a former Barton aide and wife of Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie.

Barton said he has also sought help from Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) “on how best to position” himself to be chairman.

“To not do so would have been stupid,” he added.

Though Barton and DeLay have never been close, the Majority Leader would likely support his fellow Texan’s campaign, according to GOP leadership aides. But DeLay is not expected to make a public endorsement until Oxley announces his plans.

Many on Capitol Hill believe Oxley would defeat Barton if the two squared off over the Energy and Commerce gavel.

Oxley served on the committee for more than a decade before Tauzin beat him three years ago in a bitter fight to replace former Chairman Thomas Bliley (R-Va.).

As part of the peace accord between the two senior Republicans, House leaders installed Oxley at the helm of the refurbished Financial Services Committee. They also permitted him to retain his seniority on the Energy and Commerce Committee in case he ever wanted to come back.

Though Tauzin’s departure would create such an opening, the 59-year-old Oxley has told several Republican Members that he would prefer to stay at the Financial Services Committee, where enjoys the position and most of the issues he has worked on the longest are now under the aegis of that panel.

“I don’t think that he would do it unless the leadership says it needs him,” said one longtime Oxley supporter. “He is very happy where he is. I don’t think he wants to put himself in a position where he has to compete with someone.”

But sources close to Oxley say he will likely try to swipe jurisdiction over electronic stock-trading networks and the privately run board overseeing the accounting industry from the Energy and Commerce Committee as a reward for sidestepping a divisive fight.

Sources say the GOP leadership may grant Oxley’s wish in order to avert a potentially complicated committee domino effect if Oxley were to leave the Financial Services panel.

In addition to the fight over the Energy and Commerce panel, Oxley’s departure would spark a contest to replace him at Financial Services between current Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) and Rep. Richard Baker (R-La.).

Baker has long viewed himself as Oxley’s heir apparent. But Dreier is term-limited at the Rules panel and could mount a challenge for the Financial Services gavel if he is not given special permission to remain at the Rules Committee in the next session of Congress.

“If Oxley leaves there’s battles everywhere,” observed a Republican lawmaker who is close to leadership.

Barton’s rise to the helm of Energy and Commerce would mark a startling turnaround for the 10-term Texan.

Until recently, he had been considered something of a misfit in Washington, concerned mostly with quixotic ideological causes, such as his annual effort to approve a constitutional amendment to require a two-thirds vote to raise taxes.

Barton’s go-it-alone style did not change much after he rose to the chairmanship of a key subcommittee on the Energy and Commerce panel in charge of pushing President Bush’s comprehensive energy bill though Congress.

After winning praise for moving the bill though the House last year, Barton was unceremoniously removed from House-Senate negotiations on the bill when he refused to compromise on an ethanol provision championed by House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) that would have hurt Texas oil refineries.

This year, Barton has made an effort to show that he is capable of leading a committee with jurisdiction over most business issues.

He chaired a fundraising dinner for House Republicans earlier this year that brought in $5 million for the Republican Party — and he has backed down on the ethanol provision.

Asked about his change on the ethanol language, Barton said: “I want to get an energy bill passed.”

Recent Stories

Capitol Ink | Aerial assault

Auto parts suppliers fear a crash with shift to EVs

As summer interns descend on the Hill, this resource office is ready

Democrats add five candidates to Red to Blue program

Is Congress still ‘The Last Plantation’? It is for staffers, says James Jones

Staffers bear the brunt of threats aimed at district offices