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Washington Update: Bill prompts debate over a regulatory freeze

October 1, 2012

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Typically, it is police officers who get to yell “Freeze!” but the House of Representatives is now giving it a try.

The Red Tape Reduction and Small Business Job Creation Act (H.R. 4078) – originally named the Regulatory Freeze for Jobs Act – passed the House on July 26 in a 245-172 vote that fell largely along partisan lines.

Key details of H.R. 4078
Prohibits “significant regulatory action” until the unemployment rate falls to or below 6 percent.
  • “Significant” is defined as any rulemaking that costs the economy at least $50 million annually.
  • “Regulatory action” is defined as any action step that promulgates or could lead to the promulgation of a final rule, including advance notices of proposed rulemaking and notices of proposed rulemaking.
Prevents outgoing presidents from issuing economically significant rules in the closing weeks of their term.
Exceptions to the bill include when the president determines by Executive Order regulatory action is necessary in the event of an “imminent threat to health or safety or other emergency.”

Under the legislation, agencies – including OSHA – would be prohibited from pursuing most regulatory action until the unemployment rate falls to or below 6 percent. The unemployment rate in August was 8.1 percent (latest data available at press time); the last time unemployment met the bill’s threshold was July 2008, when it was 5.8 percent.

The bill reflects a popular idea among Republicans that regulations inhibit job creation and economic growth, and the belief that more rules have been issued during the Obama administration than under previous presidents.

“Hardworking Americans deserve a regulatory system that doesn’t hamstring their ability to invest, hire and grow,” said Rep. Tim Griffin (R-AR), the bill’s sponsor.

Debate

During a debate prior to the bill’s passage, many Democrats asserted that tying the promulgation of regulations – especially occupational safety and health regulations – to how well the economy is performing makes no sense.

“This bill seems to assume lethal hazards are somehow less lethal during tougher economic times,” Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) said.

Several regulations being pursued by OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration that have the potential to help prevent injuries, illnesses and deaths – including those dealing with beryllium exposure and “black lung” disease – would be placed on the back burner.

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) said the Red Tape Reduction and Small Business Job Creation Act would, in effect, do the opposite of what its name suggests by creating barriers for the development of regulations that protect worker safety and health.

“This isn’t red tape reduction, folks,” Johnson said. “This is a philosophy of putting profits over people.” Woolsey and Rep. George Miller (D-CA) introduced amendments to the bill, creating exemptions to the legislation that would allow OSHA to continue work on two standards:

  • Combustible Dust. The Chemical Safety Board has supported an OSHA rule covering the hazard since 2006, and OSHA has been working on a rule since at least 2009. That progress would be halted if H.R. 4078 becomes law, Miller said.
  • Electric Power Transmission and Distribution; Electrical Protective Equipment. When Safety+Health went to press, a final rule was under review by the Office of Management and Budget. The final rule could help prevent more than 79 percent of the 74 deaths and 444 injuries experienced by electrical workers each year, Woolsey said.

Compassion

Both amendments failed to pass the Republican-controlled House. Rep. James Lankford (R-OK) said the exemptions brought by the two Democrats were unnecessary because the legislation already covers them.

“As it is currently, the bill stands up strong for worker safety. It allows any exception for worker safety currently in this bill,” Lankford said, referring to wording in the legislation that grants the president power to issue an Executive Order allowing regulations dealing with an “imminent threat to health or safety” to move forward. He suggested a standard dealing with combustible dust, and possibly electrical hazards, would fit in those guidelines.

Lankford went on to criticize the suggestion that only OSHA is compassionate about workplace health and safety issues. “Obviously, people who are within Congress are also compassionate to the needs here,” he said. “If a regulation comes that deals with a problem in a commonsense manner that can function, certainly Congress would be able to approve that.”

Miller scoffed at the idea that workers in dangerous conditions could rely on the compassion of Congress, highlighting the influence demonstrated by industries heavily opposed to some new regulations.

“The workers in this country have a right to rely on the law to protect them, not on some notion of this committee or of this Congress’ sense of compassion and of whether it will be invoked on that given day or not against the lobbying efforts by these industries,” Miller said.

At press time, the Red Tape Reduction and Small Business Job Creation Act had moved to the Democrat-controlled Senate, where it is not expected to gain any traction.

The opinions expressed in “Washington Update” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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