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Money for NAS study taken from OSHA compliance funding
After six agonizing delays, the House Appropriations Subcom mittee on Labor, Education, and Human Services has finally let the other shoe drop — with a resounding thump. Not only has the subcommittee approved money for a study of whether a new TB standard is necessary, it also handed the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) a budget trimmed 5% below last year’s.
While opponents of the new TB standard welcome news of the study, which is viewed as a way to stall any OSHA maneuvers, they say the real shocker is the cut to the federal agency’s budget. The $17 million chunk the subcommittee cut amounts to a 5% reduction in OSHA’s 1999 budget and a 13% reduction from what had been requested for next year. Plus, the deepest cuts take direct aim at the agency’s enforcement capabilities — a fact that, by itself, could spell doom for the proposed TB standard. "After all, without people to monitor compliance, it wouldn’t make much sense for them to promulgate the new standard, would it?" says Jennifer Thomas, director of government and public affairs for the Washington, DC-based Association of Professionals in Infection Control (APIC), a professional organization vociferously opposed to the new TB standard.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman has blasted the bill, charging that the cuts to OSHA’s ability to monitor compliance will result in "substantial reductions in workplace inspections and cutbacks to compliance assistance." OSHA officials, in keeping with the agency’s policy of not commenting on political issues, are mostly keeping mum.
"We’ve reopened the record again, and we’ve considered all the new data submitted," says Frank Kaine, an OSHA spokesman. "It’s our position that there’s no need for another study," he says. "It’s the money that we’re really worried about."
Speculation about where the OSHA budget cut came from has stirred a flurry of speculation on the Hill. "I’d love to take credit, but we had nothing to do with it," says APIC’s Thomas. "All I know is there are a lot of people in Congress who hate OSHA."
During the oft-postponed mark-up session — the time subcommittee members finally meet to hammer out a final bill — Thomas says she was part of a group of lobbyists and reporters bunched outside the hearing room door trying to get in.
"People inside the room would come out occasionally with these little pearls of information," she says. "Suddenly, here came this press release on the OSHA budget cuts. We couldn’t believe what we were hearing."
Along with the OSHA haircut, the subcommittee handed Thomas what she and others have been praying for: that is, a formal request that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) conduct a one-year study of whether a new TB standard is really needed, plus $450,000 to pay for the study.
A presidential veto?
Because the same bill includes big cuts to programs held dear by President Clinton — money for worker retraining, severance-pay guarantees, and an initiative aimed at helping disabled workers — the nation’s chief executive has vowed he will veto the package if it’s handed to him in its present form.
That almost ensures there will be a fight once the bill reaches the House floor. But while predicting OSHA’s ultimate fate is impossible this early in the game, insiders say it’s a safe bet that the call for the NAS TB study will stay put.
The reason is more technical than political, one observer says. The call for a report "has already been written into report language," says David Medina, who works as a lobbyist for the AFL/CIO, the 13 million-member federation of U.S. labor unions. "So it can’t be amended unless someone offers an amendment which overrides it, and that’s much tougher to do."
For her part, Thomas is radiating optimism. "I’m breathing a lot easier now, and I have a lot less angst when I think about the future," she says. "We’ve cleared our biggest hurdle. Things could still become contentious, but I think we’ve tailored our request so that they won’t. I mean, we could have asked them to stop the standard altogether, but we didn’t. We just asked for a fair and impartial study."
Bill has ally in Senate
Once the bill wends its way out of the House subcommittee, where its anti-OSHA components have a staunch ally in subcommittee chair Tom Wicker (R-MS), it will find an equally sympathetic welcome awaiting it over in the corresponding Senate subcommittee, Thomas predicts. "Over there, we’ve got people in line waiting to help us," she says. Chief among them is Sen. Thad Cochran, also a member of the delegation from Mississippi.
What looks like salvation to Thomas, as well as to those in the TB community who oppose more stringent regulations, strikes the Clinton administration as mean-spirited and harsh. Secretary of Labor Herman calls the bill "a bad bill for American workers . . . that cuts efforts to help the neediest among us." It will "devastate education and training programs both for young people struggling in poverty and for laid-off workers who don’t have the skills to start over," she adds.
In a reference to the proposed cuts to OSHA’s budget, Herman notes pointedly that "this bill would drastically curtail our ability to improve the safety and health of American workers."
"Well, I’m not really against all OSHA rules," says Thomas, thoughtfully. "But in this case, I know inside and out that this new TB standard will accomplish nothing of use."