Oil Gushes and Power Rushes

Obama's "$20 billion shakedown" exemplifies his lawlessness.

Last week, after President Obama pressured BP to create a compensation fund for victims of its oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, Rep. Joe Barton denounced the arrangement as "a $20 billion shakedown." The Texas Republican said the fund has "no legal standing" and circumvents the "due process system" for assigning blame and ordering compensation.

Although Barton was widely mocked for appearing to defend a huge corporation that is responsible for the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, he had a point. Obama's grandstanding money grab exemplifies the lawless unilateralism that he condemned as a candidate yet embraced as a president.

Since the $75 million statutory cap on damages for oil spills does not apply in cases involving regulatory violations, "gross negligence," or "willful misconduct," BP's potential tort liability is enormous. But so are its assets, and there was no danger that it would run out of money before compensating everyone with a valid claim.

Obama could have let the legal process run its course, or he could have asked Congress to create a compensation fund in the interest of hastening payments. Instead he unilaterally extracted $20 billion from BP, on top of whatever damages the company will have to pay as a result of lawsuits, and appointed a lawyer to dole it out as he sees fit.

BP, facing an administration that will decide whether to lift the moratorium on offshore drilling and whether to pursue a criminal case that could bankrupt the company, felt compelled to cooperate. "Mr. Obama had no legal basis for the demand," The New York Times noted, "but concluded he did not need one."  

That's precisely the attitude for which Obama rightly castigated his predecessor, who believed that obeying the law was optional, especially if it stood in the way of measures aimed at fighting terrorism. "The law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers," Obama declared in 2007, condemning "unchecked presidential power"  and promising that in his administration there would be "no more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient."

Less than a year later, Obama supported amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that not only authorized the warrantless wiretaps he had promised to stop but granted telecommunications companies that facilitated them the retroactive legal immunity he had promised to oppose. Since taking office, Obama has vigorously resisted every attempt to hold anyone responsible for what he himself called "illegal spying."

Six months after capitulating on FISA, Obama endorsed the Bush administration's illegal use of money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to bail out GM and Chrysler. Although Congress created TARP to shore up "financial institutions," Obama deemed the diversion to car manufacturers "a necessary step to help avoid a collapse in our auto industry." As president, Obama has gone even further, using TARP as a pretext to take over GM and force a merger of Chysler with Fiat.

Obama also has continued George W. Bush's lawless ways by preserving "extraordinary rendition," the practice of sending terrorism suspects to foreign countries where they are likely to be tortured. Obama, who in 2008 vowed he would "say no to renditions," not only says yes to them now but refuses to compensate innocent people imprisoned and tortured as a result of this policy.

Likewise, candidate Obama complained that Bush denied terrorism suspects due process, detaining them indefinitely without charge. President Obama promises to give more of them trials but reserves the right to keep them behind bars even if they are acquitted. In case that charade proves too burdensome, he also reserves the right to kill them by remote control instead of arresting them.

Some disillusioned supporters suggest that Obama changed his mind about executive power after he started wielding it. But his pre-election concessions to political expediency indicate he was faking it all along. A politician who believes he is above the law is not above lying to the public about his principles.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

© Copyright 2010 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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