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Where's the OSHA boss? 8.5 years of acting administrators (4/7)

April 7, 2009
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Here’s one reason OSHA never seems to be able to get on track: Since the agency’s inception in 1971, it has had more acting administrators (13) than Senate-confirmed appointees (11). In addition, one OSHA administrator was named by the president during a Congressional recess and never confirmed by the Senate.

All told, the acting administrators have led the agency for 8.5 years. This April marks the 38th year since OSHA’s first administrator, George Guenther, took command. This means the agency has been run by largely impotent acting chiefs for more than 20 percent (22 percent) of its history.

No OSHA administrator has served longer than four years, even during times when the White House remained in control of agency appointments for eight years. Only four OSHA chiefs have come close to staying for a full four-year presidential term: Dr. Eula Bingham (April 1977 - January 1981), Joe Dear (November 1993 - January 1997), Charles Jeffress (November 1997 - January 2001), and John Henshaw (August 2001 - December 2004).

OSHA’s stop-and-start, high-turnover leadership also has been diluted by a selection process for administrators that has become more and more protracted with the years. It is now the end of the first week of April following President Obama’s January inauguration and the appointment of an OSHA boss is said to still be probably weeks away, with confrimation by the Senate months away.

Following President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration in 1977, Dr. Bingham was nominated, confirmed by the Senate, and running the agency by March, 1977.

Following President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, Thorne Auchter was in place running OSHA by March, 1981.

The appointment process slowed noticeably during the two terms of President Bill Clinton. After his inauguration in Janaury, 1993, his pick for the top OSHA job, Joe Dear, was not appointed, confirmed, and running the show until November of 1993, almost a full year later. Following Clinton’s second inauguration in 1997, his nominee for OSHA administrator, Charles Jeffress, was not confirmed and in office until November, 1997, again, almost a full year later.

John Henshaw, President George W. Bush’s first pick to head OSHA after his election in 2000, did not begin his first day on the job until August, 2001.

President Obama’s nominee will be fortunate if he or she keeps to Henshaw’s timeline.

Since April 1, 2009, President Obama has sent the following nominations to the Senate: an Assistant Secretary of the Army; an Assistant Secretary of Agriculture; the Deputy Administrator for National Preparedness, Federal Emergency Management Agency; and an Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs (Human Resources).

Since April 1, Obama has announced his intent to nominate the Director of the Bureau of the Census, Department of Commerce; the Administrator, Federal Highway Administration; the Administrator, Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Department of Transportation; the Director, Institute of Education Sciences, Department of Education; the Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations, United States Department of Agriculture; and the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances, Environmental Protection Agency.

Unlike many of these largely innocuous and under-the-radar positions, the selection of the OSHA administrator is, and always has been, mired in labor-management politics. OSHA’s small size (with about a $500 million budget) belies its larger symbolism as a “leading indicator” of every presidential administration’s ideology as either pro-labor or pro-business, and as either an active or reluctant regulator and enforcer.

In short, highly-charged politics have undercut OSHA leadership since the agency’s inception, and show no signs of letting up. In fact, the lengthening wrangling to name an agency boss combined with the short life expectancy of the OSHA chief (typically about 2.5 years) and the many interruptions of interim leadership point to continuing, perhaps deepening, leadership problems at the agency.

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