Washington Update: The new Congress
The Republicans now have a majority in Congress. But will things be any different than with the previous Congress?
As the question relates to occupational safety and health, the answer is, “it depends.”
During the past four years in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, committees scrutinized the Obama administration’s regulatory and enforcement efforts. This likely will continue in the 114th Congress, according to Luke George, government affairs manager with the National Safety Council, and committees in the Republican Senate probably will join their House counterparts in opposition.
Few funding changes to OSHA’s budget are expected. A Republican Congress will undoubtedly maintain the current trend of keeping the agency’s funding levels relatively flat. However, priorities may shift a bit: Republicans are more apt to provide additional monies for employer-friendly compliance assistance programs, while reducing funds for enforcement activities.
Some funding changes could be significant. The Obama administration, on multiple occasions, has proposed cutting funding for NIOSH’s Education and Research Centers as well as the Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing program. The programs are intended to research and educate stakeholders on occupational safety and health issues.
In past years, funding for ERCs and the AFF program was restored under the leadership of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. But Harkin has retired, and whatever influence he may have held as the committee’s ranking member is gone.
“You don’t have the champion you had before,” George said.
It’s unclear what Republicans may do with these two programs, but Obama has proposed eliminating funding for them yet again this year. Couple that with GOP posturing on reducing government spending, and funding for these programs very well could be eliminated.
Riders undoubtedly will be attached to any funding bills. These provisions set policy restrictions on federal agencies. Republicans attempted to use riders in past Congresses to block OSHA from taking certain actions, including the promulgation of an injury and illness prevention program standard or the enforcement of certain residential construction fall protection requirements. Most of these riders failed, in large part because Democrats controlled the Senate.
With Republicans helming both chambers, the odds have improved for restrictive riders succeeding. “The administration is not going to veto a bill over an OSHA policy rider,” George said.
It’s too early to tell what riders may be attached to future funding bills in a GOP Congress, he added, but provisions could include prohibiting OSHA rules that have been criticized by Republicans, such as I2P2 and silica. Although the agency has placed I2P2 on the back burner, OSHA has invested a lot of work into its silica rule. If OSHA is barred from continuing work on it, or releasing a final rule in the next two years, it could be a huge blow to the agency.
Democrats have pushed several occupational safety bills over the years, but none will gain much traction in the new Republican-controlled Congress. However, George believes one bipartisan bill has a chance: codifying OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs.
Early in the Obama administration, the president threatened to pull funding from the recognition program. Since then, Republicans and some Democrats have proposed legislation establishing VPP as a permanent part of OSHA instead of a program subject to the whims of lawmakers. With the new congressional dynamic, a VPP bill could land on the president’s desk.
No matter the funding proposals or the legislation introduced, one thing is certain: Both parties must learn to work together unless they want a repeat of the October 2013 federal government shutdown.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the presumptive Senate majority leader, has expressed a willingness to get work done – welcome news coming after a historically unproductive two years under the 113th Congress. But the GOP lacks both a veto- and filibuster-proof Senate majority, so they will still need congressional Democrats and the president on board for certain issues.
“It’s going to take compromise to get things done,” George said.
The opinions expressed in “Washington Update” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.