The new top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., has laid off almost all the professional staff—about a dozen—who worked under his predecessor, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., National Journal has learned.
This is a departure from the norm, Hill sources on both sides of the aisle tell NJ, where many professional committee staff members often remain through elections and other committee shuffles. To wit: The new chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has decided to retain about half of the staff who worked under the former chairman, now retired Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. Wyden announced his new staff, including many who worked for Bingaman, on Wednesday.
“My EPW staff did excellent work during my 10 years in leadership on the committee,” Inhofe told National Journal in an e-mailed statement Wednesday. “I trust Sen. Vitter has hired people he views will be of a good resource to his goals as the new Ranking Member and a representative of Louisiana."
Among the staff let go were James O’Keeffe, a senior economist who had worked for the committee since 2005, according to Legistorm, an online database of congressional staff information. He focused on infrastructure issues, including the Highway Trust Fund, according to a source familiar with the committee workings. Todd Johnston, who worked on coal issues for Inhofe at the committee since 2007 and before that for former Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, was also let go.
Communication and staff directors are often let go during committee shakeups. These positions are more political than other policy-oriented positions, and the people holding these posts often build strong relationships with the senator they represent so it’s natural they would leave along with the senator.
Matt Dempsey, who has worked for Inhofe for a decade and had been Inhofe’s communications director at the committee for the past four years, was among those Vitter did not retain. Inhofe is now ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, whose press inquiries will be handled by Inhofe’s personal office spokespeople Jared Young and Donelle Harder.
New chairs often keep policy advisers and committee counsel because of the institutional knowledge these people offer.
“A lot of times the professional staff will stay because they have had so much experience,” said Robert Dillon, spokesman for Energy and Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. He said that Murkowski retained about 85 percent of the professional staff from the previous top Republican on the committee, Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico. Dillon was quick to point out that every new chair handles staffing differently.
It’s not clear what reason, if any particular one, prompted Vitter to not keep most of the policy staff on the committee. One rumor, according to an aide who used to work for Inhofe on the panel, is that the two senators didn’t get along.
“From what I’ve been told, it was due to the fact that Vitter was pissed at Inhofe because Inhofe refused to help him fund-raise because of the prostitution scandal that Vitter faced,” the aide said, who was not among the dozen or so most recently let go. “Vitter wanted to purge and get rid of everyone.”
Vitter easily won reelection in 2010 despite the scandal, which was revealed in 2007. The PAC affiliated with Inhofe, Fund for a Conservative Future, did donate $5,000 to Vitter’s reelection campaign in 2010, according to data compiled by Center for Responsive Politics. In Vitter’s first election to the Senate in 2004, Inhofe’s PAC donated $10,000.
Luke Bolar, spokesman for Vitter’s personal office, flat-out denied the rumor. “No, there is nothing like that. Sen. Vitter and Inhofe get along very well,” said Bolar, who is also now Vitter’s spokesman for the committee.
“I didn’t know it was out of the norm,” said Bolar about letting go most of the committee staff who worked under Inhofe. “A new ranking or chairman usually brings in new staff. That’s my impression of other committees.” Vitter retained two Inhofe staff members and laid off about a dozen, according to multiple Hill sources. Bolar would not confirm who was let go or who was kept on the committee.
According to Hill veterans, Vitter’s decision to let go of most of Inhofe’s staff all at the same time is rare.
“To see a blanket change like that so quickly, I have no recollection of that happening,” said Bill Wicker, who was the spokesman for Bingaman on the energy committee and has worked on the Hill for 12 years. “We’ve been a very stable committee with a lot of institutional knowledge. Chairman Wyden recognizes that, and has blended the old with the new,” added Wicker, while on a joint call with Wyden’s new energy committee spokespeople, Keith Chu and Samantha Offerdhal.
A spokeswoman for Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., confirmed to National Journal Wednesday that no staff members on the Democratic side of the committee have left or are planning to leave.