I thought about postingthis in the Politics SE but this is a legal question. In this article it appears that US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has explicitly told two legislators from Alaska that the way they cast their votes in the Senate have put federally funded projects planned for Alaska "in jeopardy". There are a lot of different ways this could be done, but ultimately it boils down to how the Secretary will/won't allocate funds for these projects.

The duty of the Legislative branch is to faithfully represent the people of their district/state when creating laws.

The duty of the Executive branch is to faithfully execute the laws that the Legislature creates when implementing programs.

The Founders designed it so that the Legislative branch would control the "Power of the Purse" as one of its checks & balances versus the Executive branch, yet here it seems that an Executive branch department is saying it will control the purse unless Legislature does what the Executive wants.

This seems to me to be a violation of the Separations of Powers at the very least but it also sounds like extortion or bribery for congressional votes. Another issue is that this kind of financial/political arm twisting essentially tries to force the legislators into representing the interests of the Executive over the interests of their constituents.

I do realize that political backroom deals for pork barrel spending and earmarked projects are also subject to the same arguments, but in those cases the process is much more visible and the entire Congress has a final voice in approving the specific allocations.

2 Answers 2


(This is more of an anecdotal answer than a strictly legal answer).

All is fair in love, war and politics. After Zinke's "threat" phonecall,

"(Murkowski) took it one step further and demonstrated that she has more leverage over Zinke than he has over her. As chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Murkowski indefinitely postponed a nominations markup that the Interior Department badly wants." The Daily 202: Trump’s hardball tactics backfire as ‘skinny repeal’ goes down - The Washington Post

But seriously, all kinds of political power plays go on that skirts the edges of what is constitutional and legal in a strict sense. Ideally, of course, the three branches of government are separate.

Was the "threat" legal?

"I am unable to identify any ethical rule or legal obligation requiring a cabinet member to make a senator's priorities the same as the administration's priorities," said Jan W. Baran, a government ethics and lobbying expert at the law firm Wiley Rein. "Absent a specific law obligating certain executive branch action, the official need not do any favors whether for senators of his own party or those of an opposing political party." The Energy 202: Messing with Murkowski may not be illegal, but it sure wasn't very smart - The Washington Post

In any event, one of the "checks and balances" on the political system and within each branch of government is an investigation, carried out by independent oversight offices in each branch.

A leading Democratic lawmaker on Thursday said he would ask federal officials to investigate reported threats by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke regarding Alaska energy policy to retaliate against opposition from one of the state's Republican senators to efforts to repeal Obamacare. U.S. lawmaker requests investigation into threat to Alaska senators over healthcare vote

If it goes forward, the Government Accountability Office and the Interior Department's inspector general will investigate.


The Interior Secretary has whatever discretion Congressional appropriations bills afford the Interior Secretary.

  • Yes, but that discretion must be exercised in accordance with the law: not capriciously, maliciously or corruptly
    – Dale M
    Jul 28, 2017 at 21:29
  • @DaleM In theory, perhaps, but in practice capricious or malicious exercises of discretion are not subject to judicial review of any form. Corrupt exercises of discretion (i.e. those that confer an economic benefit on the person exercising discretion) are subject to criminal prosecution by federal prosecutors (in the case of federal officials) but only if the Justice Department exercises its discretion to do so which it would often not.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 28, 2017 at 21:55

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