WASHINGTON -- The chief sponsors of a bill to expand oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and open the coastal waters of Virginia for exploration have received more than $8.8 million combined in campaign donations from the oil and gas industry, a review of campaign finance records shows.
On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed the Restarting American Offshore Leasing Now Act by a 266 to 149 margin. The measure would force the federal government to conduct three lease auctions in those areas by June 2012. It is considered the first step in a GOP-led process to loosen restrictions on offshore drilling. Authored by House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), it faces a much closer vote in the Senate as well as the stated opposition of the Obama administration.
Nevertheless, the bill's passage in the people’s chamber underscores the extent to which the political world has moved beyond the concerns over domestic drilling that arose in the wake of last year’s historic oil spill in the Gulf. It also serves as another reminder that, in the halls of Congress, certain legislative power comes with financial prowess.
A review of data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics shows that the 67 co-sponsors of the act received a combined total of at least $8,887,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry during the course of their careers. For at least ten of those members, the oil and has industry was their biggest career contributor.
The same dynamics held true for the twenty members of the freshmen House Republicans who co-sponsored the bill. Of those, five counted the oil and gas industry as their largest contributor during the 2010 campaign.
Contacted by The Huffington Post for comment, each of these congressional offices offered differing versions of the same explanation for their vote.
Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), who has received more than $92,000 from the oil and gas industry during the course of his 3-year congressional career, noted that his district encompasses the birthplace of domestic oil production.
“It is not just prominent,” Thompson said in a phone interview with HuffPost, “my congressional district is where the oil industry was given birth 150 years ago …. There are a lot of folks whose families have been involved in providing this country oil and -- sometime after that -- natural gas for generations. So it doesn’t surprise me [that I got those donations].”
Insisting that there was a “strict firewall” between his policy shop and his campaign apparatus, Thompson went on to defend the merits of the bill.
“I believe in low gas prices,” he said. “I think high gas prices and high energy costs are crushing jobs and are just unnecessary. I see a direct link.”
Like Thompson, Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) has a large industry presence in his district. The Texan has received $246,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry in his two terms.
Olson's communications director, Melissa Kelly, noted in a statement that he “proudly represents the energy capital of the nation, Houston, TX.” More than half of the congressman's contributions, Kelly added, came from individuals employed by the industry -- individuals who would, logically, stand to benefit economically from increased oil production.
“Olson will continue to fight for the best interests of our nation and his constituents,” Kelly added. “This includes ensuring a reliable, affordable domestic energy supply for America, which also allows the private sector to provide good paying jobs."
Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), who has received more than $1.18 million in contributions from the oil and gas industry since 2002, argued in a public statement that the passage of the act was the first step “in reversing the policies of the Obama Administration, which… [led] to higher gas prices and a loss of American jobs.”
In a follow up email to The Huffington Post, Pearce's press secretary, Eric Layer, was even more concise: “This is about putting thousands of Americans back to work,” he said, “plain and simple.”
Government watchdog groups don’t see it in such absolute terms.
“It may not be shocking that [these members] are top targets of oil and gas money but it nevertheless warrants some questions about whether they are representing Big Oil or their constituents,” said Sheila Krumholz, the Center for Responsive Politics' executive director. “Do these constituents support drilling? If they don’t, then they need to make positions known. Because the oil and gas companies, rest assured, have made very clear their desires. And, through their donations, they have made clear the clout they wield.”
The oil and gas industry is one of the most politically active interests groups in Washington. In the 2010 mid-term election cycle alone it spent $30 million in contributions to federal candidates (either through individual contributions, contributions through political action committees, or money sent to “outside” groups). More than $21 million of that went to Republicans, which was 77 percent of the industry's contributions.
Their campaign involvement, moreover, is rising. In the 2006 mid-term election cycle, the industry spent nearly $10 million less in political contributions.
And those figures pale in comparison to the amount the industry spends on lobbying. In 2010, oil and gas companies spent just under $146 million employing the service of nearly 800 lobbyists.
The oil and gas industry's influence also extends to operations in a wide swath of congressional districts. This setup allows companies to pitch more lawmakers on the idea that expanded drilling would help both the economy and their re-election campaigns.
Such a dynamic affects even members of the House GOP’s freshmen class.
Despite ascending to power largely on a pledge to stem the influence of special interests, many of these members found themselves on Thursday casting a vote that would directly benefit a top industry backer. Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), a co-sponsor of the Restarting American Offshore Leasing Now Act, received more than $250,000 in campaign contributions from oil and gas industry in 2010. Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) received more than $212,000. Rep. Francisco "Quico" Canseco (R-Texas) received more than $94,000. Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) received nearly $42,000. And Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.) received more than $150,000.
Only Landry’s office responded to a request for comment. In doing so, it offered a defense that echoed the lines used by his longer-serving colleagues.
"Our district relies on the oil and gas industry,” said the Louisiana Republican's spokesman, Millard Mulé. “Coastal Louisiana -- where one in three jobs are related to oil and gas and domestic energy production -- has seen jobs being sent overseas and people on the unemployment rolls because of the President's moratorium. Today the Congressman worked hard to get the legislation passed because hopefully, it will help put his constituents back to work."
Amanda Terkel contributed to this report.