Monday, August 16, 2004

Post & Times (Finally) Figure It Out: Bush Making OSHA, EPA, MSHA, DOT, DOE, Interior, etc. More Business Friendly

One of the "benefits" and frustrations of being a workplace safety activist living in Washington D.C. is that I am constantly able to witness the subtle and not-so-subtle attacks that this administration has made on workplace safety, the environment and consumer well-being. Everyone (one hopes) remembers that the first significant piece of legislation that George W. Bush signed was the repeal of the ergonomics standard. But it's the more subtle attacks -- generally through regulatory changes unseen by most Americans or the major media -- that led me to launch this blog almost 18 months ago. One service that I thought I could provide was making workers and safety activist across the country aware of the havoc that this administration is wreaking on the promise of a safe workplace for all American workers.

So it is with some satisfaction that I returned to Washington today after the first phase of my summer vacation to find three articles (the first of a major series) in the Washington Post and one in the New York Times that address the major, yet almost unseen changes that the Bush administration has made through the regulatory process, with the effect of making more business friendly OSHA, MSHA and the agencies in charge of policing the health of our environment. On one hand, I'm glad to see these articles. On the other hand I'm thinking, "What the hell took you so long?" If you had been doing this kind of reporting all along, I could have gotten a lot more sleep.

The New York Times argues that:
Some analysts argue that the Bush administration has introduced rules favoring industry with a dedication unmatched in modern times.

"My thoughts go back to Herbert Hoover," said Robert Dallek, the presidential historian. "No president could have been more friendly to business than Hoover" until the Bush administration.
This may be true; this administration has certainly been the most effective in rolling back regulations. I'd argue, however, that part of the "credit" goes to Congress. While the Reagan and first Bush administrations had similar goals, their efforts were somewhat stymied by Democratic control of one or both houses of Congress. Democrats were able to publicly reveal Republican efforts to weaken regulations, and use hearings and the legislative process to push OSHA to issue needed regulations.

The Times reports that the war in Iraq has shifted the attention of the media and the public away from substantial regulatory initiatives designed to please business:

Allies and critics of the Bush administration agree that the Sept. 11 attacks, the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq have preoccupied the public, overshadowing an important element of the president's agenda: new regulatory initiatives. Health rules, environmental regulations, energy initiatives, worker-safety standards and product-safety disclosure policies have been modified in ways that often please business and industry leaders while dismaying interest groups representing consumers, workers, drivers, medical patients, the elderly and many others.

And most of it was done through regulation, not law - lowering the profile of the actions. The administration can write or revise regulations largely on its own, while Congress must pass laws. For that reason, most modern-day presidents have pursued much of their agendas through regulation. But administration officials acknowledge that Mr. Bush has been particularly aggressive in using this strategy.

The Washington Post starts off with a subject near and dear to my heart: the Bush administration's withdrawal of the proposed tuberculosis standard which was close to being issued as a final standard at the end of the Clinton administration.

"Near and dear," because while at AFSCME I typed up the original petition urging OSHA to issue the standard, and one of my last activities at AFSCME before heading off to work at OSHA was to testify at regulatory hearings in favor of the standard.
Tuberculosis had sneaked up again, reappearing with alarming frequency across the United States. The government began writing rules to protect 5 million people whose jobs put them in special danger. Hospitals and homeless shelters, prisons and drug treatment centers -- all would be required to test their employees for TB, hand out breathing masks and quarantine those with the disease. These steps, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration predicted, could prevent 25,000 infections a year and 135 deaths.

By the time President Bush moved into the White House, the tuberculosis rules, first envisioned in 1993, were nearly complete. But the new administration did nothing on the issue for the next three years.

Then, on the last day of 2003, in an action so obscure it was not mentioned in any major newspaper in the country, the administration canceled the rules. Voluntary measures, federal officials said, were effective enough to make regulation unnecessary.

The demise of the decade-old plan of defense against tuberculosis reflects the way OSHA has altered its regulatory mission to embrace a more business-friendly posture. In the past 3 1/2 years, OSHA, the branch of the Labor Department in charge of workers' well-being, has eliminated nearly five times as many pending standards as it has completed. It has not started any major new health or safety rules, setting Bush apart from the previous three presidents, including Ronald Reagan .

The changes within OSHA since George W. Bush took office illustrate the way that this administration has used the regulatory process to redirect the course of government.
In addition to tuberculosis (which I have written about many times here, here and here), the Post uses several other examples, including:
  • an OSHA witness testifying that disposable respirators are as effective as more sophisticated respirators (without disclosing that he had worked previously as a consultant for the 3M, which makes the disposable respirators.

  • OSHA's refusal to issue a standard requiring employers to pay for personal protective equipment such as gloves, boots, hard hats and goggles.
While OSHA has not completely given up on regulations, the Post's analysis found that:
the rules the agency has proposed are narrower than most of those it has eliminated. Thirteen of the 24 proposals it has canceled since Bush took office fall into a category the government classifies as "economically significant," meaning they would cost or save the economy at least $100 million. None of the 16 standards OSHA has proposed during that time falls in that group.
The Times focuses mostly on three examples:
  • Department of Transportation raising the number of hours that truckers can drive after the NTSB recommended that hours be reduced to address the raising number of fatigue-related accidents."

  • The administration's relaxation of clean air rules, allowing corporations to upgrade their plants without installing pollution control equipment

  • Air conditioning manufacturers' successful efforts to lobby against raising energy efficiency standards.
Also available on the web only, is a Washington Post story of how the Bush administration has ignored a petition by Public Citizen Health Research Group and the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union petitioned OSHA to issue a tougher standard on beryllium, and even refused to meet with the groups, while maintaining a tight relationship with beryllium manufacturer Brush Wellman.

Update: The second article in the Wasington Post series has hit the newstands (or at least the web): 'Data Quality' Law Is Nemesis Of Regulation.

But I'm on vacation. Read it yourself.