For nearly a year, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) has been waging a one-man crusade against ... Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's salary.
Salazar was poised to get the same, predetermined raise as every other member of the president's cabinet, but Vitter decided to play a little game -- he would allow Salazar to receive his additional compensation just as soon as Salazar gave oil companies more drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Obama administration has already lifted the drilling moratorium, of course, and the Department of the Interior is issuing new permits every month, but the right-wing, scandal-plagued senator still refuses to let Salazar receive his raise -- Vitter insists the permits aren't being approved quickly enough for his satisfaction.
This led to questions about ethical improprieties -- can a sitting senator deny a cabinet official compensation to which he's legally entitled until the official makes oil companies happy? Does this point to some sort of strange quid pro quo ("I'll trade you drilling permits for your raise")?
Vitter issued a press release late last week announcing that the Senate Ethics Committee looked into the matter, and boasted that he's been "validated" by the investigation. In reality, that's not quite what the Senate Ethics Committee said.
"Your actions to block restoration legislation appear to be unprecedented," Senate Ethics Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and vice chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) admonished in the March 29 letter, which dismissed the case because no existing rule dealt with the issue.However, the letter said, "It is inappropriate to condition support for a Secretary's personal salary increase directly on his or her performance of a specific official act."The committee reiterated its position in a letter to Senators that day, saying similar efforts "will be viewed by the Committee as improper conduct reflecting discreditably on the Senate."
In effect, the ethics panel found that Vitter's ongoing stunt didn't violate any specific Senate rules because such a rule has never been necessary before -- no senator has ever tried to hold an executive branch official's pay raise hostage, offering to trade it for an unrelated policy move. Vitter ignored basic institutional norms, but since there's nothing to say a senator can't take this ridiculous step, the ethics panel was left to simply admonish him.
Indeed, the Senate Ethics Committee went on to say that Vitter's stunt "undermines a basic principle of government service."
A few words come to mind to describe this, but "vindication" isn't one of them.
* headline corrected