Barton invites lobbyists all aboardSunday, January 15, 2006
Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON – Despite recent hand-wringing over lobbying abuses, U.S. Rep. Joe Barton has no qualms about spending next weekend with lobbyists and other high-dollar backers. He's got a special time planned for anyone willing to spend $2,000 for a seven-hour private train ride Friday from Fort Worth to San Antonio.
"During the ride, we'll have lots of time to talk, play some Texas Hold 'Em, and enjoy some great down home Texas food," reads the glossy, six-panel invitation to "Joe Barton's 2006 Texas Train Ride." "This is about as good as it gets."
In San Antonio, donors will have brunch Saturday with the Ennis Republican, chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee and – since former Majority Leader Tom DeLay's fall from grace – the top-ranking Texan in the House. He and his guests will also have cocktails, an evening tour of the Alamo, dinner and breakfast on Sunday.
"Man, sounds like fun," said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice. "Don't you usually give 'em just one chicken dinner? That's a pretty good return for $2,000."
He and other government watchdogs called the event remarkable for two reasons: the extended face time with Mr. Barton, and the timing, as Congress' image reels and GOP leaders develop plans to control the damage.
"It's an ingenious way to shake down money from the lobby and for the lobbyists to get almost 48 hours of uninterrupted attention from the chairman," said Tom Smith, executive director of Texas Public Citizen. "It certainly shows Barton's insensitivity to issues of propriety."
Barton campaign manager Craig Murphy was unapologetic.
"It's just a normal fundraiser," he said. "You've got to have a fundraiser if you're going to raise money and have a campaign. Everybody does it."
Lawmakers are always seeking more enticing formats than the typical stand-up cocktail party. Golf outings have been popular. Some offer ski trips or fishing excursions.
With 132 takers, the train ride will gross more than a quarter of a million dollars – far more than most lawmakers can command in one shot. But Mr. Barton's panel has jurisdiction over nearly half the issues Congress controls – such as oil policy, pro baseball, Medicare and environmental regulation.
Mr. Barton suffered a minor heart attack last month and recovered quickly. Elected with Mr. DeLay in 1984, he trails Rep. Ralph Hall in seniority by four years. But Mr. Hall was a Democrat until 2004. And with Mr. DeLay's fall amid allegations of corruption, Mr. Barton has emerged as de facto leader of Texas GOP members, urging them last week with mixed success to back Rep. Roy Blunt's bid for majority leader.
Powerful as he is, Mr. Barton is Texas' only chairman – a far cry from the influence Texas enjoyed for most of the past quarter-century. Democrat Jim Wright served as majority leader and speaker. Republican Dick Armey was majority leader from 1994 until three years ago. Mr. DeLay served as majority whip under him, then as majority leader for the last three years.
Redistricting forced out ranking Democrats on three committees. If Republicans can hang on to the majority, two more could be chairmen by this time next year.
Mr. Hall is in line to take over the Science Committee, and Rep. Lamar Smith of San Antonio is the top contender for the Judiciary Committee.
There's no nastier name one Democrat can call another these days than "Friend of Tom."
Former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez of San Antonio, touting the endorsement of former Sen. Bob Krueger in his bid to unseat Laredo Rep. Henry Cuellar, alleged that his opponent had a "tight relationship with Tom DeLay, from the favors he did as Rick Perry 's secretary of state to hosting fundraisers for DeLay's legal defense fund."
Mr. Cueller did serve the GOP governor. He did stump for President Bush.
And after ousting Mr. Rodriguez by a few dozen votes in 2004, he has voted with Mr. DeLay's side more often than nearly any other Democrat.
But host a DeLay fundraiser? Not true, as Rodriguez media consultant James Aldrete acknowledged after an inquiry.
"I inserted it from memory," he said. "I'm going to back off on that."
Todd J. Gillman covers Congress and the Texas delegation.