WASHINGTON—With millions of dollars invested in campaign donations and an all-star lobbying team, BP executives could give an advanced class in how to build influence in Washington. But with millions of gallons of leaking oil bearing down Gulf Coast beaches and bayous, they could also teach how to lose it.
Even pro-oil Republicans - whose 2008 vice presidential nominee,
Sarah Palin, made "Drill, Baby Drill!" a party rallying cry - are demanding answers. At least for the moment, it appears that whatever clout BP has accrued, the oil company is unlikely to get delicate handling from lawmakers investigating the oil rig disaster when oversight hearings begin this week on Capitol Hill.
"I'm sure it's not helpful," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., asked what impact the spill would have on BP's political influence. "This is a disaster of major proportions, and we need to get to the bottom of what happened."
BP-related campaign and lobbying spending makes the political outlays of Toyota, another major foreign-based company under investigation by Congress for its failings on safety issues, look faint by comparison.
British-based BP, No. 4 on Fortune magazine's list of the world's largest companies, spent $16 million last year lobbying Congress and the federal government, and $3.5 million in the first three months of this year. That was before its rig disaster led at least a half-dozen congressional committees to start investigating. Japanese automaker Toyota, No. 10 in the Fortune ranking, spent $5 million lobbying last year and $880,000 in the first quarter this year.
BP employees donated at least $160,000 to congressional candidates and their parties so far this election cycle. When campaign donations from BP's lobbying corps of roughly three-dozen people and their firms' political action committees, or PACs, are added to BP employees' total, the political giving since January 2009 tops $1 million, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. The firms lobby for multiple clients, not just BP.
President Barack Obama's campaign was the top recipient of BP employees' money in the 2008 election: $71,000.
Asked about the donations, White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said Obama "didn't accept a dime from corporate PACs or federal lobbyists."
"He raised $750 million from nearly 4 million Americans," LaBolt said. "And since he became president, he rolled back tax breaks and giveaways for the oil and gas industry, spearheaded a
G-20 agreement to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and made the largest investment in clean energy in American history."
In a reflection of the Obama administration's and BP's mutual interest in developing fuel alternatives to gasoline, Obama named Steven Koonin, BP's former chief scientist, the Energy Department's undersecretary for science.
The other top recipients of BP employee 2008 election-giving both sit on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, one of the panels investigating the spill. Obama's GOP presidential rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, received $37,000. And $16,000 went to a senator whose state is on the receiving end of much of the spilled oil, Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, according to figures compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
The oil and gas industry is a big employer in Louisiana. Landrieu supports offshore drilling and has repeatedly said rig fires are few and far between, a point she made at a committee hearing last November when Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., displayed a photo of a summer blaze on a rig off Australia's coast.
"The fact is, these things happen," Landrieu said at the time, estimating there are about 20,000 such rigs. "So, 19,999 were not on fire."
Landrieu doesn't believe BP-related campaign cash is any reason to step away from the committee's investigation, nor does she see any reason to give the money back, spokesman Aaron Saunders said, adding that she has called for a full investigation of the BP spill.
"I think her record speaks for itself," Saunders said. Landrieu met last week with BP Group chief executive Tony Hayward.
The percentage of BP employee-giving that goes to Democrats has inched up since they took control of Congress and the White House. It has gone from 30 percent Democrat and 70 percent Republican a decade ago to a split of about 40 percent Democrat/60 percent Republican in the last election and so far this election cycle.
All of BP's political spending, particularly on lobbyists, has given the oil company one thing it desperately needs - access to members of Congress to tell the story of the rig spill and response its way, and sophisticated navigators of Washington to help do it.