Senator holds up Salazar’s pay raise over oil drilling

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Thanks to a constitutional quirk, Interior Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar makes less than most of his colleagues in President Obama’s Cabinet, and a Republican senator says he’ll keep it that way, blocking a nearly $20,000 raise for the high-level appointee until the administration approves more deep-water oil drilling.

Mr. Salazar’s salary is set at $180,100, which is $19,600 less than most other Cabinet secretaries. The Constitution prohibits legislators from taking positions in the executive branch for which they voted to raise the salaries, and since Mr. Salazar approved secretaries’ pay levels when he was in the Senate, he would have been barred from taking the Interior job unless the salary was reduced to its earlier level.

His Senate term would have expired in January, though which means he’s once again eligible for the higher pay rate.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, tried to get consent this week to pass the change in the Senate but was blocked by Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican who said he won’t yield until Mr. Salazar approves more oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Every day, Interior’s policies are costing more Gulf energy workers their jobs. But the Interior secretary needs a raise? That’s ridiculous - it’s offensive,” Mr. Vitter said in a statement to The Washington Times. “I’ll do everything I can to block his raise until Gulf energy workers are at least where they were in terms of work and job security pre-BP. I really want to see new deepwater exploratory permits being issued at pre-BP levels over a three-month period.”

Kendra Barkoff, a spokesman for Mr. Salazar, said he did not request the change. But she said equalizing pay is the right move.

“The secretary of the Interior’s salary should be equal to that of the other Cabinet members. It’s just that simple,” she said.

Mr. Salazar was elected a senator from Colorado in 2004, but in 2009, with two years left on his term, Mr. Obama tapped him for the top job at the Interior Department.

Since then Mr. Salazar has regularly clashed with his former Republican colleagues in Congress over the Obama administration’s land use and energy exploration policies.

In the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year Mr. Salazar imposed a deepwater drilling moratorium, then lifted it but wrote tough new regulations. Lawmakers also accused him of slow-walking new drilling permits, though after a federal court order he began to approve some new drilling.

Article I, Section 6, Clause 2 of the Constitution prohibits members of Congress from being “appointed to any civil office … which shall have been created, or the emoluments whereof shall have been increased during such time” as they were elected. The goal was to prevent lawmakers from creating cushy positions for themselves.

To get around that ban, Congress decided it can just reduce the salary for the position back to what it was before the officeholder’s most recent election.

It has come to be known as the Saxbe fix after William Saxbe, who jumped from senator to attorney general under President Nixon. And it has happened several times since, including most recently for Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen under President Clinton.

Some legal scholars argue that it is still unconstitutional, though their challenges have fallen short in the courts.

Mr. Obama in 2009 nominated two other sitting lawmakers for Cabinet positions: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis.

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