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Joe Barton’s Hidden Benefits

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Is there some secret liberal benefactor out there paying handsome bonuses to Texas Republicans who make headline-grabbing jackasses of themselves—and us?  Even if you’re not prone to conspiratorial thinking, you have to wonder. There’s got to be some explanation for the rapid fire of over-the-top outrages our elected Republicans have let loose in just the past year. If we haven’t had Gov. Rick Perry whinging about states’ rights and blaming God for the BP spill, we’ve had Randy Neugebauer hollering “Baby killer” at his fellow congressman and abortion foe Bart Stupak. Or Louie Gohmert screeching on the House floor about gays in the military being the slippery slope to Nazism. Or … well, there’s not enough room on this page to chronicle the bursts of joy that our Republicans have been busy inspiring in the world outside of Texas.

In mid-June, Texas’ senior member of Congress did the seemingly impossible: He out-stupided them all. With his instantly world-famous public apology to BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward for his “shakedown” by President Obama, Joe Barton threw down the gauntlet for Perry and every other right-wing stalwart in Texas: Top this, suckers!

God knows they’ll try. But it’s really not a fair fight. Barton has been sharpening his game for nearly three decades in Washington now—mainly in his role as Texas’ special gift to climate science. Nobody has labored harder than Barton to discredit global warming, and nobody has had more risible things to say on the subject than the (gasp!) ranking member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Confronting Al Gore in 2007 hearings, Barton deemed global-warming theory “a triumph over good sense and science,” and informed the former vice president that he was “totally wrong” about it. On C-Span in March of that year, Barton displayed his superior understanding by attributing temperature differences to the shapes of clouds. To be precise: “tall clouds or skinny clouds, short clouds, fat clouds, high clouds, low clouds.”

Last year, Barton temporarily gave up on denial and embraced climate change as an opportunity. “I think it’s inevitable that humanity will adapt to global warming,” he prophesied in another Congressional hearing. It can even bring hidden benefits. “During the Little Ice Age, both the Vikings and the British adapted to the cold by changing,” Barton said. “I suppose that one possible adaptation response of Viking retrenchment and British expansion is that we’re conducting the hearing today in English instead of Norwegian.”

So buck up, people! When Houston and New York are underwater, we’ll “change” accordingly. We’ll learn how to scuba our way around just fine. But only, it seems, if we get there the right way—by relying on oil, rejecting “cap-and-trade,” and eschewing alternative energies like wind. As Barton observed in a 2009 hearing, wind—unlike, say, oil—is a “finite resource.” If we try to capture and use it, he cautioned, we’ll “slow the winds down” and “cause the temperature to go up.” Which would be a bad thing. Except that it would also be good, since a big old global warm-up gives us our chance to emulate the Vikings. Sometimes the workings of Barton’s brain are too intricate for the rest of us to parse.

His motives, however, can be espied with relative ease. Texas has sent more than its fair share of Big Oil sidekicks to Washington, but Barton takes the cake. He’s gotten more campaign contributions from oil and gas interests than any member of Congress—$1.67 million since the 1990 election cycle. While BP has given him a relative pittance—$27,000—Barton’s most generous patron, Anadarko Petroleum, owns a one-quarter share in the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. No wonder he could so readily identify with Hayward’s pain.

Once again, the whole world has enjoyed a good guffaw at Texas. But nobody, surely, takes more pleasure in the spectacle of Barton’s BP boot-lick than Barack Obama. For the beleaguered president, it had to be pure-D delightful to see your most outspoken and vociferous opponent on global-warming legislation officially become your greatest ally. Talk about hidden benefits.

My advice to Shakedown Joe: Hang in there. Ignore the catcalls and keep the faith. And whatever you do, keep talking. You might be making Texas look even more like the land of Yahoo conservatism, but you’re doing the planet a favor every time you part your lips.