Bribery it isn’t. Bad government, maybe, but not bribery.
A frivolous complaint against U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., by a Washington group critical of ethical abuses in the government won’t get the time of day when it arrives in the Senate Ethics Committee office.
Nor should it.
The complaint by CREW - Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington - said Vitter’s efforts to hold up a pay raise for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar constituted bribery.
That is, Vitter said he would use his arbitrary power as senator to block Salazar’s scheduled pay raise unless the secretary issued more deep-water drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico.
This is part of a long-standing dispute between Vitter and other members of the Louisiana delegation against the Interior Department, which has been under fire from the left for not preventing the Deepwater Horizon disaster and from the right for not going on to issue drilling permits as though the oil spill disaster never happened.
CREW director Melanie Sloan alluded to recent scandals in her complaint: “Whether it is a defense contractor buying French furniture for a congressman in exchange for earmarks, or a senator who ties a department secretary’s pay raise to approving permits, bribery is bribery,” Sloan said.
“Paying off government leaders to influence official actions is against the law, period,” she said.
We like to think that we understand bribery here in Louisiana. We have trouble following this argument. Even if Salazar were influenced by the potential raise, would that be a bribe? It’s not as though Vitter handed over $19,600 in cash.
If Salazar were doing such a bad job, why is he up for a raise? Purely a technical point: Cabinet officials can’t make more than when they were a senator, until their Senate term expires. It was a way the Founding Fathers attempted to prevent the executive from buying influence in the national legislature.
In modern times, the adjustment upward for salaries is routine, for Republicans or Democrats. Salazar became a senator in 2005, and his term would have expired in January 2011.
Not a bribe, though it’s fair to call it “coercion,” as Salazar did - and then asked Senate leaders to drop the otherwise routine bill for the raise.
If CREW’s complaint has any virtue, it will call attention to the sordid Senate practice of using “holds” on appointments or using procedural tricks to block action. Often, legislation is based on behind-the-scenes negotiations that are dependent on unanimous consent rules, so a single senator’s bile can throw a monkey wrench into the schedule.
These are Senate traditions that, like seemingly everything in Washington, are corrupted by blind partisanship; Vitter is one of the worst abusers, but far from the only one.
Senate “traditions” that worked in more gentlemanly days aren’t working in today’s environment, and rules that allow a single senator to indulge himself in obstruction indefinitely are long overdue for changes.
If the Founding Fathers didn’t want senators to be corrupted by offers of Cabinet offices, they equally didn’t intend that senators be 100 little presidents who - by their own arbitrary will - can tie up the actions of the entire body, or the government.
They should act as legislators, not as petty potentates.
Bribery? Not guilty.
Bad government on Vitter’s part? Guilty.