Senate Republicans won a long-sought vote Thursday night to block the Occupational Safety and Health Administration''s (OSHA) proposed ergonomics standard. The Senate approved by a margin of 57-41 an amendment to the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill that prevents final promulgation of the rule until October 2001.
There was never any doubt that a majority of senators wanted a delay in the rule, but without 60 votes needed to cut off debate, Republicans were unable to vote on the issue last year.
With promulgation of the ergonomics rule only months away, Senate Republicans were determined to force a vote on the amendment this year. Senate GOP leaders evidently made a deal with their opponents: They convinced Democrats to drop their filibuster strategy by agreeing in exchange to allow a vote on new Medicare prescription drug benefits. Republicans defeated the new drug benefits, but Democrats believe the issue will help them win in the fall elections.
The Senate and the House have approved a one-year delay in the ergonomics standard, but with the president vowing to use his veto power to block any delay in the rule, it is far from clear whether the Republican strategy will succeed.
Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., chair of the subcommittee charged with OSHA oversight, sponsored the ergonomics-delaying amendment. In introducing his amendment, Enzi argued on the Senate floor that, substantively and procedurally, OSHA''s ergonomics rule is seriously flawed. The senator spent most of his time on the proposal''s procedural problems, however, contending that the agency is "rushing" to promulgate a final rule by December, with procedural lapses as the result.
Enzi appeared particularly upset that OSHA, citing executive privilege, denied him free access to contracts and documents connected to the agency''s controversial decision to pay expert witnesses $10,000 each for their testimony at informal public hearings on the proposal.
Enzi was allowed to peruse the documents at Rep. David McIntosh''s, R-Ind., office, and what he saw appeared to anger him. "OSHA held practice sessions to coach the witnesses in their testimony," Enzi said. The agency gave detailed outlines to their witnesses and, in one case, told an expert to deliver a stronger statement, he added.
Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., the ranking Democrat on Enzi''s committee, rejected the argument that OSHA is "rushing" to promulgate a rule that he said began 10 years ago, when Republican Elizabeth Dole was secretary of labor.
"It''s about working people''s lives," Wellstone said. "We''re not rushing from their point of view."
OSHA estimates that approximately 600,000 workers are seriously injured by ergonomic problems every year.
by James L. Nash