Serious flaws in fed oversight (8/30)
"It's as though the nation is walking into a casino and spinning the roulette wheel every day," says Michael Livermore, a government regulation specialist and executive director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University law school. "It's only a matter of time before we're going to come up with snake eyes and have another disaster."
And the problem is? Or… the problems are?
Agencies like OSHA are famously underfunded. Former government workers, like several recent OSHA chiefs, leave their lofty position to become consultants or join law firms representing industry. These are not the “cozy” relationships found, say, in the Gulf of Mexico oil and gas industry, and have not proven detrimental to OSHA.
OSHA does suffer, quite a bit, by another factor that hamstrings federal regulators: lack of public support for major-scale federal intervention in the private sector. One reason: the belief that compliance costs jobs. In this scary economic moment, it’s very tricky to argue for more oversight of American business.
“The American public decided probably 20-30 years ago it had bought all the occupational safety and health it wanted,’ says a former Ford Motor Company industry hygiene exec.
The result: OSHA, like other fed oversight bodies (and many industrial safety departments) is reactionary, not proactive. "Too many of our regulatory agencies suffer from inertia and lack of resources," Adam Finkel, a former OSHA official who directs regulation studies at University of Pennsylvania law school, told the Houston Chronicle. "Agencies devote most of their efforts to investigating accidents rather than looking into long-term hazards that claim far more lives over time."
You can argue that OSHA doesn’t suffer from inertia, but from sometimes spectacular swings in mission philosophy as Republicans and Democrats take turns running the agency. As the Chronicle states: “The workplace safety agency has a reputation for abruptly changing course with changing administrations.”
We are seeing that abrupt change right now, with safety expert and George Washington University professor David Michaels replacing John Henshaw, who had spent 22 years at Monsanto.
But this change is not so much Michaels versus Henshaw as Hilda Solis versus Elaine Chao as Labor Secretaries. Solis is an activist who has given OSHA the green light to be “the new sheriff in town.” Chao was an obstructionist who saw little reason for the OSHA sheriff and put the handcuffs on Henshaw, according to those in positions to know, when Henshaw was prepared to pursue an ambitious agenda. Instead, he was left to say, “I’m a sailor, and you have to go with the prevailing winds.”
One last obstacle for OSHA: political antipathy, and sometimes outright disdain. There is a reason the law creating OSHA 40 years ago has never been seriously amended, not once, by Congress. How many votes back home is a lawmaker going to win by supporting the current White House-backed legislation to dramatically increase the agency's powers, versus the number of irate phone calls from businesses back home, potential campaign donors?
Plus, according to the Chronicle, Congress is lobbied by 152 organizations interested in OSHA issues.
So to many in Congress, OSHA is toxic: the source of complaints from constituents far more than applause. It’s thoroughly politicized. It won’t win you votes. So lawmakers, with the exception of Rep. George Miller (D-CA), don’t want to touch it, let alone empower it.