Senator Takes Ball, Goes Home

President Obama’s top oil regulator won’t get a raise until he puts more drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, at least if Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) has his way.

Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, was scheduled for a pay adjustment that would bring his salary in line with the other Cabinet secretaries; before he joined the White House, Salazar was a member of the US Senate and therefore ineligible for the higher-paying Cabinet salary. But Sen. Vitter, a champion for his state’s oil and gas industry, accused Salazar of stifling production in the Gulf of Mexico and vowed to block the raise until the Interior Department meets his demands.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar helps volunteers clean up oil damage to beach at Gulf Islands National Seashore (photo: Tami A. Heilmann-DOI)


“Given the completely unsatisfactory pace of your department’s issuance of new deepwater exploratory permits in the Gulf, I cannot possibly give my assent,” Vitter said in a letter to Salazar. […]

Vitter said he would agree to Salazar’s pay increase once BOEMRE begins issuing deepwater permits for new exploratory wells in the Gulf at a rate of six per month.

Politico’s David Rogers writes that Sen. Vitter’s tactics may cross the line on Congressional ethics rules:

It was Washington politics at its rawest, but Vitter’s actions also tread close to federal statutes which make it a crime to offer anything of value to a public official “to influence any official act.”

“It reads like the bribery statute,” said a Washington defense attorney with long experience dealing with such cases. And in a letter provided Tuesday to Capitol newspapers including POLITICO, Salazar— a former state attorney general in Colorado— asked that the pay bill be withdrawn rather than give in to what he saw as Vitter’s “attempted coercion of public acts here at the Department.”

Vitter has been working closely with his Democratic counterpart, Mary Landrieu, on legislation to restore the Gulf’s damaged ecosystem, but it’s not the first time he’s taken on the Administration over drilling decisions—Vitter has also blocked Senate confirmation of the the US Fish & Wildlife Service director until 15 new deepwater permits have been issued for the Gulf. The Interior Department has already issued 14 permits this year, and President Obama recently announced plans to accelerate drilling in the Arctic and off the Atlantic coast.

The Deepwater Horizon rig burns (photo: Anthony Posey/flickr)

Congress remains starkly divided on the issue—last week the Senate rejected a bill that would have opened new areas to offshore drilling, sped up the permitting process and removed important environmental safeguards. The House passed three similar measures earlier this month, drawing fire from worker safety advocates and environmental groups who pointed out that Congress still hasn’t passed legislation responding to the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.