We’re not even out of 2009, so no one is in the mood to start thinking about another long, drawn-out, media-saturated presidential election battle in 2012. At least outside of Washington. Campaign consultants, party leaders and Potomac Fever gossipers are always on to the next race. It’s the habitual pastime in the nation’s capital.

But if you study the OSHA regulatory agenda issued yesterday by the Department of Labor, two political facts of life strike you. One, even when an administration actually has the will to set new standards, as this one does, it still takes years to grind through the process of small business impact studies, stakeholder meetings, comment periods, public hearings, advance notices, proposals, risk assessments, revisions, more in-house soul-searching and public outreach, and trying to get the Office of Management and Budget and the DOL front office to sign off on a new rule.

Two, due to this grind ‘em out process, it requires two presidential terms, eight years, for an OSHA team (like the present one) that actually wants to be innovative and ambitious to have any chance at achieving even some of its goals.

When you see how relatively innocuous standards proposals such as walking/working surfaces, electrical power transmission safety, and crane and derrick safety have been reprinted for years in the regulatory calendar, you begin to grasp the enormity of the resources and resolve necessary to drive through rules on ergonomics, updating permissible exposure limits, and setting baseline requirements for workplace injury and illness prevention programs.

To be sure, in Washington agencies can always ram through standards at the midnight hour of an expiring administration, as OSHA did in 2000 with the ergo rule and in 1980 before the Reagan administration took control. But not to any lasting effect. The new powers quickly rescind the old orders, as the Bush administration did with the ergo rule months after taking office (with the help of Congress).

It’s no surprise that ergonomics, workplace safety programs, and updating PELs were not listed on the first regulatory calendar published by the Obama Labor Department. Why borrow trouble before you even know how you want to proceed? OSHA chief Dr. David Michaels has just been sworn in. Give him a year to put together a strategy for addressing the Big Three regulatory issues.

Even when they make their initial appearance on the reg calendar, it’s only the start of the long grind toward final standards. That journey through a battlefield of political action ambushes and counterattacks will take oh, perhaps a half-dozen years. And that’s for maybe one of the Big Three to actually become a final rule.

Without a second Obama term, these key OSHA issues will receive all sorts of attention, but not enough traction.