This month in Washington

May 24, 2000
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Late winter saw more plot twists in that long-running political drama called "OSHA reform": On February 19, Vice President Gore, speaking at an executive meeting of the AFL-CIO in Florida, said the White House would veto Republican-sponsored OSHA bills in the House and Senate. Unfazed, the Senate labor committee approved Sen. Nancy Kassebaum’s (R-Kan.) OSHA measure in the first week of March on a straight party-line vote. But days later, on the other side of Capitol Hill, the staff of Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) decided to stop work—until after the November elections—on Ballenger’s bold and broad bill to radically reshape the agency.

Patrick Murphy, Ballenger’s press spokesman, wants to make it clear, though, that his boss hasn’t given up. "Mr. Ballenger is still committed to OSHA reform," he says. But with President Clinton’s "unwillingness to talk" about OSHA policy and his interest in "currying favor with organized labor," Murphy says a major OSHA overhaul is not going to happen this year.

"We have to read the handwriting on the wall," says the Ballenger aide. There’s still a slim chance that the full Senate might debate Kassebaum’s bill, say Washington observers. But given the veto threat and the North Carolina congressman’s retreat, the issue is dead for this year.

Just what happened to bring the curtain down on OSHA reform? And more importantly to safety and health professionals, what will the GOP do for an encore in 1997?

What went wrong

Capitol Hill sources, lobbyists, and others familiar with the politics of OSHA point to four factors:

1. The GOP repeated mistakes made by organized labor in pushing its own version of OSHA reform several years ago. Heady with victory after the ’94 elections, freshmen Republicans in the House wanted to go for broke with a broad OSHA bill that reflected years of pent-up frustration over how the agency was being run. They underestimated the opposition’s emotional fervor, and overestimated their own breadth of support. This is just what happened to the AFL-CIO and Democratic sponsors of its OSHA legislation when Clinton captured the White House in 1992 after 12 years of Republican rule.

"They thought they could zoom this thing through," says one Capitol Hill staffer.

Feisty members of Ballenger’s Subcommittee on Workforce Protections posed other problems. A "sizeable block" wanted to abolish OSHA outright, says a source on Capitol Hill. Staffers writing the reform bill believed that a strong OSHA was good public policy, but they kept adding far-reaching provisions to satisfy the "radical change people," according to this source. Consequently, measures to eliminate NIOSH, merge OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, direct one-third of the agency’s funds for non-enforcement programs, allow employers to fix violations before being fined, force employees to take their safety and health complaints to bosses before contacting OSHA, and drop fines based on the catch-all general duty clause came under fire.

"Some of the provisions (Ballenger) would rather not have had," says Murphy. Some changes were made to attract support, he allows.

2. Ironically, those revisions alienated many large corporations with political clout. "We never got the support we should have from big business," says Murphy.

Why?

"It makes us look bad to totally torch the agency," says a health and safety specialist for a major industry group.

"Big businesses want OSHA to be more helpful, but they don’t want to let small businesses off the hook and unlevel the playing field," explains another industry safety and health insider.

3. Republicans in the House and Senate never got their OSHA reform acts together. Ballenger’s bill could have made it past the subcommittee and full committee level in 1995, according to one GOP source in Congress. But House Republicans were tired of passing bills that the Senate would not take up. So Ballenger’s staff decided to wait and see what the Senate did with the OSHA issue. By the time Kassebaum’s staff started to get serious about it earlier this year, House leadership had passed word to all committees that "floor time"—debate before the full chamber—would not be taken up by contentious issues like job safety and health reforms.

4. Unions and OSHA officials guaranteed controversy by spinning the focus of reform away from fixing the agency to "killing and maiming workers," as labor leaders liked to say. Ballenger’s photo was pasted on ‘wanted posters.’ Accident victims and next-of-kin trooped into hearing rooms.

"They made the issue workers, not OSHA," says one GOP staffer. With all this going against reform, was the veto threat needed? "Quite honestly, we didn’t see it as necessary," says an OSHA official.

What's next?

Short-term in the Senate, Kassebaum’s bill probably needs support from six to eight moderate Democrats to give it enough momentum to reach the floor for a full vote (and ensure the 60 votes needed to close down a filibuster). A Senate Republican staffer says there is a "decent chance" this might happen. "A lot of members are interested in OSHA reform, not just conservative Republicans," says this staffer.

But two sources with Senate contacts envision an amendment free-for-all if the bill goes to the floor. According to one source, Republican staffers have told business representatives that once the OSHA measure gets before the full Senate, tough provisions will be tacked on, like strict risk assessment language and elimination of the general duty clause. This could scare off potential Democratic backers.

If bi-partisan backing never materializes, or time simply runs out this year, OSHA reform’s future in the Senate depends on the November elections. If the GOP maintains its majority, moderate Republican Senator James Jeffords of Vermont might replace the retiring Kassebaum as leader of the labor committee. Jeffords has a connection to OSHA through former aide Dorothy Strunk, who ran the agency at the end of the Bush administration. If Jeffords gets interested in the OSHA issue, the result could be a realistic attempt at reform that big business might support, according to one industry source.

In the House, Ballenger spokesman Murphy says, "We’ll pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and keep going." The second coming of a Ballenger bill in ’97 promises to be less controversial. "We have a more chastened view of what’s doable," says one staffer. This means ideas like merging OSHA and MSHA, wiping out NIOSH, and killing the general duty clause will probably be dropped.

The bill will still emphasize small business relief. In fact, Ballenger’s subcommittee might hold hearings this year on small business OSHA issues, and maybe even introduce a modest bill aimed at easing a small business concern like hazard communication paperwork, according to House sources.

But grand-scale OSHA reform is out of the question. It’s like trying to pass comprehensive health care reform—too many interest groups block the way.

Explains Murphy: "A lot of people in this town make a very good living off (OSHA). Anytime you want to change the system you run into a brick wall of inside-the-beltway people who would rather keep things the way they are."

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