Last week the Politico Playbook daily newsletter noted the coming retirement of Rep. George Miller (D-CA) by saying the 40-year veteran of Congress was one of the last of the Democratic “Watergate babies”… “part of a post-Vietnam 70s generation filled with moral certitude.”
Man, how many bridges have we crossed in 40 years? “Watergate,” “Vietnam” “70s generation” all bring to mind a bygone era. And today it’s the Tea Party on the right, not lefty liberals, who are reinforced with “moral certitude.”
Miller for many years chaired the subcommittee overseeing OSHA and was responsible for introducing many bills to amend the Occupational Safety and Health Act. As the American Industrial Hygiene Association’s Government Affairs Director Aaron Trippler said, Miller was one of the last occupational safety and health champions to leave Congress.
His exit from the stage makes sense, at least in terms of Miller’s support for OSHA. In 2014 very little if any “certitude” about anything relating to OSHA prevails. I’ll argue that OSHA (and EPA and NIOSH and MSHA) never would have come about in the early 1970s if not for the strong prevailing winds of moral certitude in Washington. The same goes for the Department of Education and the Department of Energy.
U.S. society, and DC lawmakers, were simply more certain of things in the 1970s. Chances are wage-earners were certain of having a job for life. The economy and the auto industry were going gangbusters to the extent many families were fairly certain of buying a new car and trading in the old one every two years. Decades before globalization, the U.S. was certainly the world’s manufacturing engine. College grads were certain of getting a job. The Soviet Union was certainly a clear and present danger.
It took that kind of confidence and black and white clarity to decide it was OK to create new bureaucracies like OSHA and EPA. The country could afford them. The country needed them. A moral argument could be made for OSHA and EPA, given grievous working conditions in many factories large and small and polluted rivers catching fire.
Fast forward 40 years. What are we certain about today? Congress cannot make up its mind about anything. Terrorism has robbed us of a degree of security we’ll never have again. It’s far from certain how long anyone will hold onto their job. Or how long we’ll keep getting a morning paper. Where did CDs and DVDs go? Blockbuster and Circuit City? The children of Baby Boomers face uncertain futures with careers. Can the old American Dream be guaranteed with any certitude? There are very few guarantees in 2014. Including anyone in Congress stoutly supporting OSHA.
No wonder it’s taken the U.S. economy so long to shrug off the effects of the recession. When you’re not certain what the heck will happen next, you move slowly, cautiously. That’s what OSHA is doing. That’s what most of us are doing.