Oil Spill Hearings Dominate Capitol Hill

Congress has held more than two dozen hearings on the Gulf oil spill. Lawmakers are looking into what happened, who's responsible and what should be changed. They've also found a target in BP, perhaps the only organization less popular than Congress right now.

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The oil spill has lead to a flood of Congressional hearings. Three separate hearings are scheduled today. There were five yesterday. Lawmakers have summoned everyone, from laborers to CEOs, environmentalists to movie stars. At least a dozen more hearings are planned as Congress considers new legislation. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico took up the gavel yesterday, again.

Senator JEFF BINGAMAN (Democrat, New Mexico): The committee will come to order. Today, we are holding the forth committee hearing here in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

SEABROOK: The main witness: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar - again. He's been making the committee rounds for weeks now. The most exciting part of yesterday's session was not the former senator talking to the sitting senators - surprising, I know but the protester who interrupted Alaskan Republican Lisa Murkowski's opening statement.

Senator LISA MURKOWSKI (Republican, Alaska): The oil from the spill had not yet reached - Mr. Chairman...

Sen. BINGAMAN: Let me let me ask the...

Ms. DIANE WILSON (Protestor, Code Pink): ...we're tired of being dumped on...

SEABROOK: Then protester Diane Wilson, a fourth generation shrimper from Texas and a member of the protest group Code Pink, dumped a jar of sugar syrup over her head. It looked as if she'd been sloshed with oil. She was immediately arrested by Capitol police.

Over in the House Science and Technology Committee, lawmakers wanted to talk about new technologies for oil cleanup and drilling safety. So they invited this guy to testify. Can you guess who this is?

Mr. KEVIN COSTNER (Actor): Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and members of the committee for inviting me.

SEABROOK: Well, it's movie star Kevin Costner, of course.

Mr. COSTNER: I know there must be a question as to why I'm here. I'd like to assure everyone in the room that it's not because I heard a voice in a corn field.

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SEABROOK: Costner is riffing off his movie "Field of Dreams," where his character hears the whisper: If you build it, he will come. That was about a baseball field. But the funny thing is, Costner kind of did do a version of that. For years he's invested in a company that has developed a machine to clean crude oil out of sea water.

Mr. COSTNER: Am I up here hocking my product? I guess. I don't know. Don't take mine, take somebody else's, because I've been to all these oil response conventions, and all I see are booms and the latest helicopter. But I've never seen one machine that deals with getting the oil out. That's me.

SEABROOK: Not that it's all theatrics. In some of these hearings, lawmakers are getting a dose of reality. The Senate Environment and Public Works committee heard from Kenneth Murchison of Louisiana State University. The environmental law professor could barely contain his sorrow.

Professor KENNETH MURCHISON (Environmental Law, Louisiana State University): I think I'm like most Louisianans in my reaction to the catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf. We are dismayed by the horrific damages to one of the richest ecosystems in the world. But we are not primarily concerned with fixing blame, and we are emphatically not looking for a handout.

SEABROOK: Testimony like this seems to make lawmakers of both parties angrier and more determined to investigate the cause of the spill. And that means - you guessed it - more hearings. Why so many, you might ask. Well, for Congress this is more complicated than just figuring out what happened. Lawmakers are also trying to look beyond the spill to what the requirements of drilling should be from now on. They also want to restructure the Minerals Management Service, which has been responsible for drilling leases, and many want to raise the liability caps on oil companies and increase the amount they have to pay in to disaster response funds. That's a lot of legislative action. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants it done by the start of Congress's August recess.

Plus, each committee has jurisdiction over a different part of this. Workers' safety is in one committee, oil drilling in another, maritime laws in a third, and liability questions in a fourth. And so keep in mind that little rule about Congress that reporters know, but you might not: Why do something in one hearing when you can do it in three?

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

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