WASHINGTON -- As speculation grows about whether or not Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) will jump into the 2012 presidential field, increased attention will no doubt fall on his career before public office, including his time as one of Washington's top lobbyists whose clients included the energy industry. The latest incarnation of this occurred on Wednesday, when Barbour visited the Chamber of Commerce and accused the Obama administration of deliberately trying to raise energy prices.
"This administration's policies have been designed to drive up the cost of energy in the name of reducing pollution, in the name of making very expensive alternative fuels more economically competitive," said Barbour in a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC on Wednesday morning. He compared the destruction it can wreak on states to the financial meltdown on Wall Street.
That sort of policy, argued Barbour, is anathema to job creation and encouraging the growth of business. It's also exactly the type of policy that the energy industry has spent big money fighting against.
Between 1999 and 2003, Barbour was listed as a lobbyist on behalf of several companies and trade organizations involved in the energy industry, earning his lobbying firm, Barbour, Griffith and Rogers Inc., $2.96 million. These companies included Edison Electric Institute, the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, the Oxygenated Fuels Association and Southern Company Services, Inc.
Those ties to the energy industry followed him when he became chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), Mississippi governor and head of the Republican Governors Association (RGA). Under Barbour's leadership at the RNC during the 1994 and 1996 election cycles, companies in the the oil and gas industry donated $30 million in contributions to Republicans. Democrats received just $12 million. During the 2010 election cycle, the RGA also raised millions from the oil industry, including from companies like Chevron, ExxonMobil and Devon Energy.
The oil and gas industry also donated millions to his gubernatorial campaigns. In the aftermath of the BP oil spill, Barbour faced some criticism for seeming to downplay the effect of the disaster, comparing the oil to toothpaste and the gasoline sheen often found around motorboats.
If Barbour decides to run for president, his lobbying work will almost certainly be the target of heavy scrutiny from Democrats -- especially if these same companies contribute significantly to his campaign. "Barbour's made millions lobbying for the oil and gas companies in Washington, so his criticism of policy that would lessen our dependence on his clients' products isn’t at all surprising," said one Democratic official.
But Barbour's spokesman Dan Turner replied to The Huffington Post that what Barbour is saying is based in policy, not politics.
"Lower energy prices would be a great help to Americans across almost any spectrum you'd care to survey," said Turner. "If you heat or cool a residence, take a car or bus to work, plow a field, fly across the country or buy groceries shipped from one state to another, lower energy prices mean a big difference in your life. More American energy has been the policy of Mississippi as long as Haley Barbour has been governor."
While Energy Secretary Steven Chu did say in 2008 that he wanted to "figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe," he has since distanced himself from that proposal, and Obama has said he is not in favor of raising the gasoline tax.
Gas prices are often a political football during elections. As gas prices now approach $4 per gallon, Barbour's points on Wednesday will no doubt be leveled at the President more frequently in the coming weeks.
During the 2006 campaign, Democrats hit President Bush for focusing on drilling instead of pursuing alternative energy policies in the face of high gas prices. In 2008, Obama, Hillary Clinton and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) battled over whether to back a gas tax holiday proposal. (Clinton and McCain did, Obama didn't.)