Confined Space
News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Special Interest Takeover: Part II

I promised last night to write more this evening about the Special Interest Takeover press conference and report. Well, who do you think I am, your mother? Read the damn thing yourselves. Sheesh!

OK, ok, a few observations.

The Report

The theme of the report is encapsulated in the subtitle: "The Bush Administration and the Dismantling of Public Safeguards." It's a meticulously documented, in-depth review of the attacks by corporate America and the Bush administration on the workplace, environmental, food safety and other protections that Americans have come to expect, and take for granted.

With regard to workplace safety, the report notes the rollbacks of worker protections, such as the ergonomics standard, as well as the 21 other planned regulations dropped off the regulatory agenda, including the tuberculosis standard that was on the verge of issuance. It discusses the failure of OSHA to develop any new regulations to fill existing gaps -- areas such as silica and chemical reactive hazards. It discusses the lack of resources available to OSHA to effectively enforce the law.

More broadly, the report reviews the administration's increasing restrictions on the public's access to information, and industry's growing control of the science that underpins government protections.

The Press Conference

The highlight of the press conference was a panel consisting almost entirely of government whistleblowers, long-time career employees who had resigned -- from OSHA, EPA, Interior -- in frustration and disgust. Almost all were non-political career employees who had served in every government since the Reagan administration or before, and all told of how this administration was far worse than Reagan or Bush I. Even during the dark days of James Watt, Thorne Auchter and Anne Gorsuch Burford, the politicals would at least discuss policy with the career staff before making their (generally wrong) decisions. In this administration, however, the political appointees simply decide what must be done (after consulting with business associations and industry associations) and simply pass the orders along to the career staff to implement.'

One panelist described the different scientific criteria needed for regulations that needed to be rolled back, versus those under consideration for strengthening. Safeguards are rolled back based on "faith-based science" -- the background justification is filled with paragraphs that begin with the words "we believe...," but devoid of actual data or analysis.

On the other hand, there is no amount of science in existence that could ever justify strengthening a regulation. More study, over many decades, is needed to achieve the "sound science" needed to justify any stronger safeguards, even for hazards that we know a lot about, like mercury.

But don't take my word for it, you can see the press conference here. Do it. It will be time well spent.

Press Coverage

Huh? What press coverage? The "trade press" was there, but I saw nothing in any newspaper today.

What Does It All Mean?

The lack of press coverage may be indicative of the fact that with Iraq and the economy dominating the news cycles and election debate, these issues may not be top election issues this year -- at least as far as the press is concerned.

Nevertheless, Americans -- even those of a more conservative persuasion -- have a certain well-founded distaste for pollution of their drinking water and fishing streams, poisoning their children, fouling their air and killing their husbands and wives and children and parents in the workplace. As long as the stories we tell are of real people experiencing real suffering, and as long as we put the blame where it belongs: on corporate abuse and neglect, and on the rolling back of safeguards and enforcement by this administration, we can win this debate -- and perhaps make it an election issue.

Unfortunately, the Republicans and business associations have been extremely effective over the past decade in making the debate not about people, but about big versus small government, and about Democrats, environmentalists and worker advocates being anti-business. Even more unfortunately, some Democrats have fallen for these arguments. Six Democrats voted for the repeal of the ergonomics standard in 2001.

But as E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in the June issue of the American Prospect (article not linked, go buy it), "the big versus small government argument miscasts what's at stake. There is nothing wrong with favoring a strong and active government that operates within limits. You might even say that this is the American way."

As far as being anti-business, Dionne points out that business has generally fared better under Democrats than Republicans. It's just that Democrats, environmentalists, labor, and consumer activists want business not to cheat and mistreat people while it prospers.

Ultimately, Dionne concludes, government is here to stay. "The real question before voters is whom will the government serve." What this report proves, based on this administration's record over the past three and a half years, is that the Bush administration is turning out government into a tool that serves corporate America at the expense of citizens who still believe they have a right to a safe workplace, clean air and water, and safe food.

For people who are looking for information about what's happened to our safeguards, or for the press who one day might wake up to the fact that people are interested in what's happening in their workplaces and backyards, this publication will be an invaluable resource.


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