Jacob Sullum

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."

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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