Congress may torpedo ergonomics regulations

Eager to kill a new federal regulation that tightens workplace ergonomics standards, business lobbyists are eyeing never-used powers that allow Congress to torpedo executive-branch regulations. Labor unions and businesses wrestled over workplace ergonomics standards for much of Bill Clinton's presidency. Then, in the Clinton administration's waning days, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration printed in the Federal Register a new--and controversial--rule that is applauded by labor and anathema to business. Some of the Clinton administration's last-minute regulations were issued too late to be printed in the Register--a delay that allows the incoming Bush administration more leeway in shaping or discarding them. But by being printed in the Register, the ergonomics standards are fortified more thoroughly from attack. Still, business lobbyists are weighing their options. Already, a number of plaintiffs have filed suit in federal court to block the regulations. But powers granted by the Congressional Review Act of 1996 are receiving special attention from the regulation's critics. Under the law, a majority vote in both houses is all that's needed to scuttle an executive-branch regulation. Moreover, Senate filibusters against the anti-regulatory effort are barred. Congress can kill regulations only in their entirety, not in piecemeal fashion. Despite GOP leaders' frequent rhetoric denouncing federal regulations, the Republican-controlled Congress has never used those powers--largely because President Clinton would likely have vetoed measures that won Congress' backing. A senior lobbyist affiliated with the National Coalition on Ergonomics--a group whose members include the American Bakers Association, the American Trucking Associations, Food Distributors International, the National Federation of Independent Business, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and United Parcel Service, among others--said the congressional approach has some key advantages. Unlike an administrative stay--which can be issued by whomever Bush chooses to head OSHA--the congressional review is not temporary. And unlike judicial appeals, the congressional stay would take effect quickly. Congressional action "kills it dead with certainty," said Peter Eide, director of labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "I don't want to call it a crapshoot, but it is a gamble whenever you go to court. It's at the top, or almost at the top, of all the issues we're dealing with in Congress. To put all our eggs in one basket would do a disservice." Perhaps most important from a political standpoint, a lobbyist said, is that the maneuver allows President Bush and his Secretary of Labor, Elaine Chao, to remain above the fray, since neither Bush's signature nor Chao's is required to implement Congress' action. By not making the decision herself, Chao does not have to burn bridges to labor unions, who were unusually solicitous to her appointment compared to Bush's first nominee, Linda Chavez. The congressional approach "gives cover," the lobbyist said. "This is being discussed at the highest levels." The timetable is less certain, lobbyists said. Under the act, Congress has 75 legislative days from the start of a new session to pass its resolutions. In all likelihood, that gives lobbyists until the spring to act. On October 15, OSHA is legally bound to begin enforcing the measure. Lobbyists say they understand that Congress' calendar is already clogged with urgent business, including budget battles, tax legislation and Bush's education-reform proposal. "We're looking to March, April, May," the lobbyist said. The lobbyist acknowledged that the narrow GOP margins in the Senate and the House complicate their task. Labor unions and their Democratic allies are expected to mount an aggressive defense of the ergonomics regulations. The proposed ergonomics rules are designed to prevent job-related injuries. Advocates say they will improve worker health, reduce sick days and improve efficiency. Many businesses have called the proposal overbroad, however, and they argue that it needs better scientific evidence before it is implemented.

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