Conservatives question Kempthorne choice for EPA

Conservative activists have begun to raise questions regarding a possible White House decision to tap Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne as the new administrator of EPA, charging that Kempthorne has too often abandoned conservative, free-market principles in support of large business interests.

In private discussions with administration officials and through editorials by conservative writers, a number of free-market activists have already begun questioning his ideological fitness for the job and warning the White House that it should settle on someone with positions more in line with conservative thinking.

"He's viewed as doing big timber's bidding and not acting as a real conservative," one activist charged, noting that during Kempthorne's 1992-1998 tenure in the Senate, he clashed with conservatives on Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act issues, who urged him to craft strong legislative reforms to the acts.

The conservative criticism of Kempthorne comes as environmentalists and Democrats are combing through old records, news stories and other sources in an effort to compile as much of a record on Kempthorne as possible before any Senate confirmation proceedings can begin.

During his time in the Senate, Kempthorne was known for his opposition to unfunded mandates to the states, and sponsored legislation aimed at reducing unfunded regulatory burdens placed on states by EPA and other agencies. But several sources said Kempthorne ultimately moved much closer to the center in drafting reforms to environmental laws, particularly his 1997 efforts to craft ESA reform with the late Environment and Public Works Chairman John Chafee, R-R.I.

Conservatives say that while Kempthorne would be better than outgoing EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, they worry he will be too vulnerable to attacks from Democrats on his ties to industry and will not champion free market reforms of federal environmental rules.

Activists also point out that, despite his rifts with conservatives, he is still identified by many as one of their own and worry he will be attacked for being conservative but will end up not pursuing much of their agenda.

For instance, Jonathan Adler, a Case Western University Law Professor and conservative activist, argued in a recent National Review editorial that "Kempthorne would likely give the administration both bad policy and bad P.R." without making changes at the agency conservatives would like to see.

Several sources following the issue argue attacks by conservatives and environmentalists will ultimately aid Kempthorne in getting the job, since it shows he is not tied to either wing of the political spectrum. Conservative critics of Kempthorne "are probably sealing his fate," one industry source said.