The New York Times has an editorial wondering if former Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorn regrets joining the beseiged Bush Administration as Secretary of the Interior now that the department has become the lastest Agency to come under the oversight of the Democratic Congress.
Dirk Kempthorne must have wondered last week why he ever accepted President Bush’s offer to become secretary of the interior. Seven former directors of the National Park Service lambasted a proposal that would allow more than 700 snowmobiles a day in Yellowstone National Park. A former senior auditor provided further evidence that the Minerals Management Service, another part of Mr. Kempthorne’s empire, had for years failed to collect royalties from big oil companies. And Democrats in the House jumped all over one of his assistant secretaries in the wake of a report that the department was secretly rewriting important regulations governing the Endangered Species Act with an eye to weakening it.
All these matters deserve scrutiny by the Democrats. But the proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act, leaked to an environmental group, deserve special attention. One reason is that this administration has long wanted to narrow the scope of the act, which for years has been a target of property-rights groups, timber interests and developers, mostly in the West. Another is that this is a dangerous moment in any administration, when incumbents running out of time try to achieve administratively what they have failed to win legislatively. A bill containing some of these same changes failed in Congress last year.
In addition, while some of the changes seem harmless, and others might well simplify an admittedly cumbersome law, several of them go to the very heart of the law – weakening federal oversight, undercutting the authority of agency scientists, making it more difficult to remove obstacles like dams and roads that threaten a species’ recovery and restricting the department’s ability to classify a species as threatened or endangered.
As Representative Tom Udall of New Mexico observed, it’s perfectly permissible for an executive agency to “tinker around on small things.” But only Congress should be in the business of making fundamental changes to a law that Congress itself designed. If anybody should know this, it is Mr. Kempthorne. During his one term in the Senate, during the 1990s, he and the interior secretary at that time, Bruce Babbitt, worked together to improve the Endangered Species Act. The effort eventually foundered, but the approach was right.