Vitter Threatens to Hold Up Interior Secretary Pay Raise Over Drilling Permits

Louisiana Sen. David Vitter just got personal in his bid to jump-start oil drilling in the Gulf.

The Republican senator announced Monday that he will block a nearly $20,000 pay raise for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar until his department starts issuing more deepwater permits.

Vitter, in a letter to Salazar, said he was asked to support the pay increase at the end of last week. "Given the completely unsatisfactory pace of your department's issuance of new deepwater exploratory permits in the Gulf, I cannot possibly give my assent," he wrote.

The Washington Times first reported that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was trying to round up support for a bill to increase Salazar's pay by $19,600 annually, to put his pay on par with that of other secretaries.

Salazar makes about $180,000. The reason he makes less than other secretaries is because a constitutional provision bars lawmakers from accepting an administration salary that they voted on. Since Salazar voted to raise secretary pay as a former Colorado senator, he had to accept a lower level of pay when he entered the Cabinet. But his hypothetical Senate term has ended, presumably freeing up Congress to vote him a better salary.

"The secretary of the interior's salary should be equal to that of the other Cabinet members. It is that simple, no more, no less," Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff told, noting that Salazar did not request the pay increase.

However, Vitter wants to see a major acceleration of drilling permits before that happens.

In his letter to Salazar, Vitter complained that while the department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement has issued14 deepwater permits since the April 2010 BP disaster in the Gulf, "only one was for a truly new well." He described the rest as reissuances of older permits. Vitter, a vigorous supporter of expanded domestic drilling, said he will block the salary increase until the department is issuing new deepwater exploratory permits at a rate of six per month.

"The history behind your pay raise proposal and the insider support it may have here in Washington is irrelevant. Mr. Secretary, the fact is your polices and your department's mismanagement of permits is causing more Gulf energy workers literally to lose their jobs every day," he wrote.