Wednesday, January 25, 2006

MSHA Director Dye Disses Congress

I listened to part of the Senate mine safety hearing yesterday, starring David Dye, Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health. After Dye testified, he notified Senator Specter, who was chair the committee, that he had to leave because he had pressing business. Specter launched into a lecture about how the Senators also had pressing business, but that it was important that he stay another hour to answer any further questions that might come up. On the other hand, Specter said, "That's the committee's request, but you're not under subpoena."

I was listening to the hearing on the internet, but having been in Washington a good many years, and having observed a number of oversight hearings, I naturally assumed that Dye had taken the Senator's subtle hint, and kept his butt firmly planted in those uncomfortable chairs.

Turns out he got up, turned around and marched right out of the room.

Interestingly, one of the reasons Dye said he had to head back to the office was to deal with a mine fire that was raging in Colorado. Hmm, sounds urgent. Important things to do. Miners at risk. Can't be wasting time blah blahing with a bunch of fat hot air bags. Urgent. Must leave.

But it turns out, according to the Charleston Gazette, that the urgent mine fire wasn't quite as urgent as Dye made out:
Apparently, Dye was referring to a fire at Arch Coal Inc.’s West Elk Mine. That fire has been burning since November. The mine is temporarily closed, and there were no reports this week of any emergency situations there.
The Senators were not amused at Dye's "I think I hear my mother calling me" dodge. West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd said:
Dye’s departure was a “gross error” and a “very arrogant thing for him to do,” especially after subcommittee chairman Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., specifically asked him not to leave.

“They don’t want to answer questions — that’s why this man left the hearing,” Byrd said. “That’s at the bottom of the problem.

“If this is how MSHA and the other executive agencies that have jurisdiction over mine safety act toward members of Congress, how do they treat coal miners?”

The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus called Dye's departure "a perfect illustration of the Bush administration's attitude toward Congress,"

And this, in a nutshell, is the way this executive branch treats its supposedly equal partner: as an annoying impediment to the real work of government. It provides information to Congress grudgingly, if at all. It handles letters from lawmakers like junk mail, routinely tossing them aside without responding.

It unabashedly evades the need for Senate confirmation of officials by resorting to recess appointments, even for key government posts; see, for example, the recent recess appointments of the top immigration official, the number two person at the Defense Department and half of the Federal Election Commission.

It thinks of congressional oversight as if it were a trip to the dentist, to be undertaken reluctantly and gotten over with as quickly as possible.
Remember, as I've written before, this is the first time since 2001 that the Congress had held an oversight hearing into mine safety. And even after 15 miners die in three weeks, in incidents that, with the appropriate procedures and equipment, may have been survivable, MSHA officials make no secret of the fact that they view informing Congress of their activities as about as valuable as a fat red hemorrhoid.

As Specter said, "I can't recollect it ever happening before. We'll find a way to take appropriate note of it."

Should be interesting.

More 2006 Mine Disaster Stories