Conservatives are upset because billions if not trillions of dollars in so-called “discretionary spending” budget cuts are not itemized, or spelled out. They want to know exactly what programs will get hammered? Especially it is the Tea Partiers who believe that if you can’t pin down old school pols, they’ll figure a way to weasel out of painful program cuts down the road.
Which bring us to little ole OSHA. Yes, in The Great Debt Ceiling Debate of 2011, with trillions of dollars in budget cuts talked and tossed about as though we’re talking real money, OSHA’s fiscal year 2011 budget of $558 million is like throwing a penny in the pond.
Sooner or later, and in DC it’s always later, push will come to shove and “discretionary spending” programs like OSHA, EPA, FEMA, NIOSH and an unfathomable number of min-empire bureaucracies within the Labor Department, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation and other domestic cabinet departments will get drilled down upon by budget-cutters. It will not be pretty.
The ugliness will commence when Congress wrangles with the fiscal 2012 budget, which officially begins October 1, 2011.
Nightmare scenarios abound in DC these hot summer days. Here’s one hypothetical exercise in seriously slashing OSHA’s budget:
1. Close area offices. After all, the U.S. Postal Service is looking at closing more than 3,000 post offices across the nation. Military bases and facilities, including the famous Walter Reed Army Hospital in DC, are being shuttered. OSHA has more than 60 field offices. I can see Congressional budget-cutters who know nothing of OSHA operations arbitrarily deciding to do away with a third or a half of the area offices.
2. Shut down OSHA’s standards-setting office. That would save about $20 million. One OSHA wag told me yesterday: “Forget about standards. Even in an second Obama term, you’re not going to see standards.” This function of OSHA hasn’t been productive in decades. Let NIOSH put out substance- and hazard-specific risk assessments and guidelines. That’s if there is anything left of NIOSH after it faces the axe.
3. Reinvent OSHA as strictly an enforcement agency and compliance assistance shop.
4. Turn OSHA’s 1,000+ inspectors/compliance officers into independent contractors. Yes I know they are protected by a union. The Teamsters Union supposedly protects Amoroso Bakery truck drivers in Philadelphia. Amoroso wants all its drivers to buy back their routes and work as contractors — they would be responsible for their own healthcare, vehicles, vehicle maintenance, gas, in essence running their own businesses. Currently the Teamsters are trying to find a compromise, but old school company paternalism is history.
OSHA is vulnerable to serious budget hacking because, when you think about, who are OSHA’s friends in DC? Unions, yes, but their clout has diminished for years now and more to the point, unions first and foremost want job security and job creation.
ASSE, AIHA, NSC? Yes. The American Public Health Association and Public Citizen and OMB Watch and groups like the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. Sure. But are these well-intentioned small groups anything of a force compared to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the National Association of Manufacturers? No.
Only a handful of pols in Congress “get” OSHA issues. Democratic Rep. George Miller of California for one. Republican Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming another. But by and large, members of Congress only hear complaints about OSHA from irate employers among their constituents. “Oh, not another OSHA call…” So on the Hill OSHA has a PR problem. It’s a problem child. No constituent calls up to say what a great job OSHA is doing.
Tea Partiers have said nothing about OSHA that I know of. But their viral antipathy of Big Brother Government certainly puts a bulls-eye on the agency.
Things seldom turn out as expected in the DC theatre of politics. And so it is with OSHA’s fate. The budget cuts could be large or smaller than I’m talking about here. But make no mistake, the cuts are coming.