Thursday, January 27, 2005

What do Armstrong Williams and OSHA Have In Common?

What do Armstrong Williams and OSHA have in common? Nothing, unless you happen to live in NAM-World with NAM Vice President Pat Cleary who writes NAM Blog. (NAM is the National Association of Manufacturers)

Armstrong Williams, as you might know, is the conservative African-American columnist and pundit who is currently being investigated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for possibly breaking the law by failing to disclose he was paid by the Bush administration to plug the president's "Leave No Child Behind" agenda. Williams has a syndicated talk show, writes a newspaper column and is a frequent guest on CNN. (Tribune Media Services has since dropped Williams's column.)

So what could this possibly have to do with OSHA? According to Cleary, OSHA did "precisely" the same thing in 2000 when
the agency paid over 20 witnesses $10,000 each to come testify in favor of its flimsy ergonomics regulation. In contrast to what the Department of Education just did, this was not run through any GSA filter, the money was just doled out to allies ("cronies" has such a pejorative connotation) of the Administration and the rule.
Cleary is shocked, SHOCKED that,
the only reporter who found it a little, uh, aromatic was John McCaslin of the Washington Times, who ran a piece on it. Not one of his brethren in the Fourth Estate found this the slight bit unseemly or newsworthy when in fact it stunk out loud.
That's probably because it wasn't unseemly or newsworthy. (And it's hardly a surprise that the only newspaper in America to take the allegations seriously was the "Moonie" Times.)

Cleary's description conjures visions of Clinton's OSHA head Charles Jeffress delivering suitcases of money to slimy characters in darkened parking garages.

The real story is not quite that exciting: When OSHA holds hearings on proposed standards, it hires experts who are knowledgeable about the science, feasibility and other issues on which OSHA has based its proposal. We're talking about OSHA hearings not just in the Clinton Administration, but in every administration -- Republican and Democratic -- since OSHA was created. Furthermore, OSHA solicits quotes and then signs government contracts with the experts, complying with all applicable government rules. In the case of ergonomics, because it was so controversial, the contracts were given extra scrutiny by OSHA attorneys. Pretty boring stuff.

So, is there a difference between the government hiring a columnist to secretly shill for a controversial government program, and openly hiring witnesses at a public hearing? And were both situations equally cloaked in secrecy? Cleary may have missed the line on the ergonomics hearing agenda titled "OSHA Expert Witnesses." But I don't recall any subtitles or disclaimers on Armstrong's columns or television shows noting that he was a paid "Department of Education Contractor."

I'd accuse Cleary of comparing apples to oranges, but that would be too kind. This is more like comparing apples to elephants.

Now we could just chalk this up to Cleary's ignorance, except that he knows better. In a previous incarnation, during the Bush I administration, Cleary worked at the Department of Labor, which oversees OSHA. As this is the first administration in OSHA's history that hasn't issued a major standard, Cleary's tenure at the Department most likely coincided with OSHA standard hearings -- in which OSHA paid experts to testify.

But, of course, this isn't about the ethics of the Clinton administration, or an alleged witchhunt against Armstrong Williams. It's all about NAM's continuing crusade against the long-deceased ergonomics standard. You see, while OSHA was in the final stages of issuing the ergonomics standard, congressional Republicans and business opponents of the standard (including NAM), having failed to convince serious observers that work was unrelated to musculoskeletal disorders, they resorted to a drummed-up "scandal" alleging that OSHA had dishonestly paid off cronies to back the standard.

Republicans even launched an investigation into OSHA's alleged ethics violations, harassed OSHA's witnesses, sent threatening letters demanding draft copies of their testimony, e-mails, notes and anything else that might be "relevant." Nothing untoward was ever found, of course, but they succeeded in possibly intimidating future witnesses and giving a few Congressmen and Senators another reason to vote against the standard.

Oh, one more interesting note. On Tuesday, February 1st, OSHA will launch public hearings into a proposed standard to protect workers against cancer and other health effects caused by hexavalent chromium. (The standard is being issued under court order) After lunch on the first day and continuing into following day, testimony will be given by "OSHA Witnesses" from Sciences International Inc, Environ Health Sciences Institute and Shaw Environ Inc.

And I'll bet they're not there on their own dime.