The issue of ergonomics has confronted the House so many times that it is causing members repetitive stress. It might also be affecting their memories.
For years, Republicans and their business allies have questioned whether there is sufficient scientific evidence to support the enactment of federal requirements for how employers must deal with employees suffering from repetitive-stress injuries. After the Republicans took over Congress in 1995, Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, offered an annual appropriations amendment that barred the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from working on these ergonomics standards.
Bonilla's amendment usually sparked contentious debate in Congress and with the Clinton Administration. But in 1995 and 1996, OSHA's ergonomics rules were blocked. Then, as another showdown over the issue loomed in 1997, Bonilla and fellow House Republican appropriators brokered a compromise: They would prohibit OSHA from proceeding with its rule for only one more year, during which they encouraged the agency to further study the issue.
In a report accompanying the fiscal 1998 appropriations bill for the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education departments, the House Appropriations Committee said this of the deal: "The committee will refrain from any further restrictions with regard to the development, promulgation, or issuance of an ergonomic standard following fiscal year 1998."
House Republicans have stuck to that commitment-until now. The Labor-HHS appropriations bill passed by the House on June 14 prohibits OSHA from issuing any final ergonomics standards. Rep. Anne Northup, R-Ky., offered the provision in the Appropriations Committee last month, and many members who also sat on the panel in 1997 voted for it. Many appropriators also supported Northup's provision when it was challenged on the House floor on June 8.
The issue is an important one for the National Federation of Independent Business, which recently issued a news release with the headline "Small Business Will Remember Any Votes to Deny Protection from Costly Ergonomics Mandate." But House Republican appropriators did not mention the NFIB's election-year threat when asked about their recent votes.
Northup apparently does not think much of the 1997 deal made by then-Appropriations Chairman Bob Livingston, R-La., and ranking member David R. Obey, D-Wis. "It is absolutely unconstitutional for one Congress to bind the hands of another Congress," declared Northup, who also criticized OSHA for drafting a rule "that was as sweeping as it could be."
Appropriations Chairman C.W. "Bill" Young, R-Fla., was unaware of the 1997 agreement until after the committee vote in May, a spokeswoman said. "Had he known about the agreement, he probably would have followed through on the earlier commitment," she said. "Since he was not a party to it, he thought he did what was right." Bonilla, for his part, said he simply had agreed in 1997 not to bring up the ergonomics issue again but that should not have stopped any other lawmaker from doing so.
The Senate may not go along with the House's attempt to block OSHA's ergonomics standards, which the agency would like to issue by year's end, and the White House will surely object. In any event, Democrats such as Obey point to the House Republicans' recent move as cause for concern. "If you can't count on a member's word in the future," said Obey, "then the lubricant that leads to compromise wears out."