Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao''s brief honeymoon with Congress ended abruptly yesterday, as two powerful senators hauled her over the coals when she refused to set a deadline for issuing a new ergonomics standard.
Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, repeatedly lost patience and interrupted Chao when she replied to their questions with long-winded and evasive answers.
"When are you going to set a deadline for having a new rule?" asked an exasperated Harkin. "It''s gone long enough -- many of our workers are suffering lifetime injuries because we delay, and delay and delay."
Chao argued that she wanted time to build a "consensus approach" to the issue, and that rushing to meet an "artificial deadline" was precisely why OSHA''s last ergonomics standard was so controversial that Congress revoked it earlier this year.
Chao failed to convince Specter, who chairs the appropriations subcommittee for OSHA and the Department of Labor.
Specter told Chao to "go back to the drawing board" and come up with an estimate on how long it would take to do a new rule.
As if to confirm the impression that the secretary of Labor was being treated like a wooden-headed schoolgirl who had not done her homework, Harkin, the ranking member of the subcommittee, asked Chao two other questions she could not answer:
- "I want to know precisely what you think is wrong and needs correcting in the 15 pages of the old ergonomic rule."
- "How much in your budget is devoted to developing a new ergonomics standard?"
After upbraiding Chao for interrupting him, Specter later cut off the secretary in mid-sentence. "Madame secretary, you''re repeating yourself and we don''t have time for that," Specter said.
Chao left the hearing shortly afterwards.
"In the 28 years I''ve spent working in Congress, I have never seen a cabinet member cuffed around the way she was," said one labor lobbyist shortly after the hearing. "She clearly was unprepared -- I hope she learned something."
The secretary told reporters in an interview after she left the hearing that how she was treated was "irrelevant" and that she would comply with the senators'' demands for information.
Over a dozen witnesses on five different panels testified at the hearing. They offered sharply contrasting views on the scientific foundation of repetitive motion injuries and the effectiveness of programs intended to reduce workplace ergonomic hazards.
"What I hear today," Specter said near the end of the hearing, "is not likely to lead to consensus." He also promised his subcommittee is going to pursue ergonomics and indicated that Chao''s consensus goal may have to be abandoned.
Another senator on the committee, Mary Landrieu, D-La., agreed with Specter on this point, and said she believed that a majority of senators favor some kind of ergonomics standard.
"Consensus is good, but it''s not necessary," she said. "What''s necessary is a majority."
by James Nash