On Mar. 30, the New Orleans Times-Picayune ran a story about the conclusions drawn by the Senate Ethics Committee concerning Republican Sen. David Vitter. Some months ago, Vitter had refused to go along with a salary increase for Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, on the basis that he was performing a bad job in choking off oil drilling for political reasons. A vote had to be held for Salazar to have an increas
e because the Democrat had resigned a Senate seat to take the job, meaning he could not have any salary increase in the executive branch beyond the Cabinet salary at the time of his resignation until his term would have ended, given the Constitution and related legislation.
The Senate allows broad latitude to its members in personnel matters, this known variously as “committee clearance,” “senatorial courtesy,” “blue slip,” “hold,” etc., where the objection of a single senator in essence can veto the action of the entire Senate. It not uncommonly is used to prevent an appointment until a senator extracts a policy promise from an appointee. Vitter’s use appeared novel, in part because the statute enabling this subsequent raise had been passed as a special case only in 2008. A few months after his hold, he announced he would not continue to block it.
The Committee did not find fault with Vitter’s action, on the basis that the matter previously never had come up. However, now that presumably all senators had been warned as a result of this decision, it indicated that, in the future, some kind of sanctions may be levied on this kind of use, differentiating it from all other kinds on the basis of “tying an incumbent Secretary's personal salary directly to his or her performance of a specific official act is different, places a Secretary in a precarious and potentially untenable position, and undermines a basic principle of government service.”
This argument, of course, is nonsense. The Constitution clearly grants Congress the authority to set salaries of civil officers of the U.S. It doesn’t say they can’t not have raises; it doesn’t even say they can’t have their salaries reduced or eliminated while in office (except if an officer with judicial functions). The panel said for Salazar to have relented would have created an appearance he gave in just to get a raise. But how is this any different from Congress impeaching and trying a civil officer of the U.S. because it disagrees with his policies? If such an official under fire then recants the policy, is this also not the same as changing in order to have a pecuniary benefit?
In fact, this phrasing is simply a way to weasel out of justifying the larger argument senators so wish to avoid – why do they have this veto power over the body concerning personnel actions? The Constitution does not justify it. It’s not even in the Senate rules. Instead, it’s an informal custom there because senators want to enjoy the privilege of exercising it, of having additional individual power. But because Vitter found a way to use it particularly inconveniently, now they have to go to great hair-splitting lengths to avoid addressing the larger question and instead come up with mishmash to differentiate between his use and all others.
The facts of the event were reported ably by a Times-Picayune reporter, Jonathan Tilove, under the headline “Bribery allegation against Sen. David Vitter dismissed.” Oddly enough, those filing the complaint had termed it as “bribery” or “extortion,” even though it was not Vitter, but Senate custom that has no official status that was the proximate cause of Vitter’s use. Rather than circumscribe members’ behavior over something not even in the rules, all the Senate has to do is renounce to custom to prevent its use in ways it doesn’t want – but, of course, that would affect their own individual power. Still, you can’t have it both ways and retain any intellectual or moral respectability on the issue.
But the day after this article appeared, the Times-Picayune ran an Associated Press wire story about it, titled “Panel chides Vitter for violating public trust.” It repeated the basic facts but summarized the committee’s decision as one that Vitter had engaged in “undermining public trust.” One headline suggests Vitter’s exoneration, the other terms him doing something wrong despite charges being dismissed; two newspapers in one! (And if you want still another different reporting of the same story, but from a different outlet, headline included, try this.)
The varying treatments, with different headlines and one story more than the other presenting a narrative that implied much more than Vitter had betrayed some conception of the public good provides a good demonstration about how the media, with the same event and facts, can spin a story to promulgate a particular viewpoint. We shouldn’t be surprised at this: in recent years, the line dividing straight news and opinion in the legacy media has deteriorated further, prompting the public to see more bias and to trust less the media. As such, even “straight” or “hard” news will become more prone to reporting in a way that provides avenues for promotion of opinion. And the public, blessed with more sources than ever of factual information courtesy of the revolutionary changes in electronic dissemination of it, will see less and less credibility in the legacy media.
The increased opinion creep into news presentation also reduces the impetus to give opinion on the more important and genuine issues of the day in opinion settings – and venues such as this rush in to fill the void, exemplified here by the recitation above concerning senatorial powers. The question is whether the legacy media will take a more balanced, inclusive approach in its editorial policies and enforce barriers between fact and opinion in its news delivery, or let the unfavorable trend continue.
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