Sometimes you just have to wonder why House Republicans even bother. Yesterday they wasted the taxpayer’s money holding a ridiculous hearing on“Regulatory Reform: Unleashing Economic Opportunity for Workers and Employers,” — basically an Obama hate-fest. You can watch it here if you have an hour and a half of your life that isn’t worth living.
But you don’t have to watch it, because I watched it and I even read all of the written testimony for you. (And yes, you should look to the right hand column of this page and give me lots of money for my pain.)
So why am I ranting?
First, let’s start out with what we’re talking about.
To listen to the Republicans, regulations are nothing more than useless paperwork imposed by faceless, un-elected bureaucrats who have no idea what small businesses are. But in reality, another word for “regulations” is “protections.” Because that’s what OSHA, and EPA and other regulations do — they protect workers, they protect the environment and they protect consumers — from getting killed in a fall, from getting cancer from asbestos or silica exposure, from hearing loss from high noise levels. So whenever you hear someone talking about “rolling back” OSHA regulations, what they’re really saying is that they want to take protections away from workers, letting more get hurt, sick and die.
Whenever you hear someone talking about “rolling back” OSHA regulations, what they’re really saying is that they want to take protections away from workers, letting more get hurt, sick and die.
The “star” witness was Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former head of the Congressional Budget Office from 2003-2005 currently president of the American Action Forum policy institute, a conservative think tank that rants and raves about the costs of regulations. Eakin, who loves to blame regulations for everything wrong with the American economy. He extols the virtues of cost-benefit analysis to justify regulations — that’s when the economists figure out the the benefits of a regulation (lives saved, environment protected, etc) exceed the costs (of implementing controls, cleaning up the air, etc.). Yet somehow, he managed to write more than 10 pages of testimony without mentioning the word “benefits” even one time.
Holtz-Eakin cites government documents to show that the cost of complying with Obama-era regulations added up to $890 billion. That sounds like a shockingly large amount of money — until Democratic witness Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute points out that the net benefits of Obama era regulations were $100 billion a year. That’s not total benefits; that’s net benefits — in other words how much benefits exceeded costs each year.
Then we have Ryan K. Odendahl, President of the Kwest Group in Perrysburg, OH who testified on behalf of Associated Builders and Contractors. Part of Odendahl’s testimony reflected the ideology of the ABC, for example when condemning OSHA for placing “a greater value on excessive fines and enforcement used to shame companies into compliance than they do preventative measures.”
But when asked what was good about what he’s seeing that the Trump administration is doing to improve things, he mentioned the Fall-Safety Stand Down and a trenching partnership in North Dakota that OSHA recently announced, the OSHA Alliance Program and the “new” onsite consultation program. “That was very refreshing to see.”
Good to know, except that the Fall-Safety Stand Down was a creation of the Obama administration, the Alliance program, which was created under the George W. Bush administration, was maintained and improved under the Obama administration, and the “new” Onsite Consultation Program is actually an old program that has been around for most of OSHA’s existence. The trench safety partnership is new, but there was no shortage of local partnerships around various issues during the Obama administration.
In other words, the ABC representative could name nothing new that the Trump administration has done to improve things for employers.
On a similar note, Karen Harned, Executive Director of the National Federation of Independent Business Small Business Legal Center, was also asked what other actions the Trump administration could take to make things more collaborative. The only thing she could think of was “Under the George W. Bush administration, there was a program in OSHA where there was a compliance program where you could get certified that your business was safe.”
So, wait, what? Is she talking about OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program? That program is not new and was not created by W. It was actually started under the Reagan administration, and was a nice little program until the Bush administration grew it to the point where OSHA couldn’t afford to maintain its integrity. The Obama administration continued the VPP program and restored its integrity.
So, nothing new there for Trump either.
Harned also complained that
During my over 16 years at NFIB, I have heard countless stories from small business owners struggling with new regulatory requirements. To them, newly effective federal mandates come out of nowhere. They are frustrated and believe that they have “no say” in the development of regulation. That is why early engagement in the regulatory process is key for the small business community.
Now Harned seems like a smart, knowledgeable person, so she knows that regulations do not “come out of nowhere.” She probably knows that there are multiple rounds of written comments on public drafts, and public hearings in most cases. And for small businesses — like NFIB’s members — there’s an entire additional stage — SBREFA — which gives small businesses an early bite of the regulatory apple. OSHA even allows anyone who testifies at a regulatory hearing to question any other witness.
So if her members don’t know about regulations coming down the pike, or how they don’t know how to comment on them, who’s fault if that? OSHA’s? Or isn’t this what the associations (like NFIB) promise to do for small businesses who are paying their hard-earned profits to keep informed of what regulations are coming down, and to help them have their say in what they look like? Sounds like some businesses aren’t getting their money’s worth from their NFIB dues.
Meanwhile, the hearing gave Republican members an opportunity to proudly boast about the worker protections they had taken away using the Congressional Review Act — like the Volks rule that makes it impossible for OSHA to cite chronic, intentional under-reporting of injuries and illnesses.
Dumb and Dumber
And then there was this incisive question from Chairman Bradley Byrne (R-AL) “Is it good for your business to have somebody injured on the job.” (Spoiler Alert: The answer is “no.”)
And I don’t even know what to say about this question from Glenn Grothman (R-WI) to the NFIB’s Karen Harned: “Was one of the goals of people who want more regulations to try to have everyone to work for a multinational conglomerate and drive the little guy out or force them all to be bought out?Do you think that’s one of the real reasons for more regulation?”
Prevention Through Enforcement
And finally, the one issue that always comes up at Republican hearings. This time from Chairman Byrne:
OSHA should be protecting workers from getting hurt in the first place not showing up after somebody gets work and dinging somebody. Sometimes that’s necessary. Don’t get me wrong there are bad actors and they gotta be fined….But if we can work with those businesses – it would be great for OSHA to get in there and work with them so that no on e is injured in the first place.
A few things about that.
First, OSHA doesn’t just fine employers after someone gets hurt. Most OSHA inspections, in fact, are conducted before someone gets hurt — because issuing penalties for violating standards (or “dinging somebody”) before someone gets hurt actually does prevent workers from getting hurt. Saying OSHA fines aren’t preventive is like saying that the cops giving tickets for speeding or running red lights or driving recklessly doesn’t discourage unsafe driving.
And yes, “it would be great” for OSHA to work with employers. That’s what the Onsite Consultation Program does. You’d think the Chairman of the Workforce Protections Committee would know that.
Watching this hearing or reading the testimony is not a total waste of time. Tune in at minute 51:30 to hear former DOL Chief Economist Heidi Shierholz respond to Rep. Takano’s question about the damage done to workers from the Trump administration’s failure to defend the Obama-era overtime regulation. Or you can read her testimony (not a waste of time) or listen at hour 1:30 to her explain how regulations don’t cost jobs overall. Or you can go to hour 1:02 where Donald Norcross (D-NJ) tries to get Holtz-Eakin to discuss the morality of cost-benefit analysis when lives are at stake, and his continuing frustration with people who think “that small business, because they’re small, shouldn’t have to play by the same rules because they’re small.”
The problem is not that there are too many workers protections; it’s that there are too few. It’s not that they are issued too fast; it’s that it takes too long to protect workers.
But overall, this hearing added nothing to what might be a useful discussion about how to improve the regulatory process to better protect workers. What can be done to make the process faster — both of adding new needed protections, but also of revising outdated regulations? It took almost 20 years, for example, for OSHA to issue its silica and beryllium standards. Thousands of workers died while these standards were not being considered.
OSHA has dozens of outdated standards, based on the 1960’s version of industry consensus standards. But it takes so long and so many resources to update those standards means that OSHA simply can’t do it. Similarly, OSHA has about 500 chemical limits, based on science from the 1950s and 1960s. But it takes close to a decade to update even one of those standards — not to speak of all the hazardous chemicals added to American industry since that time.
There is no doubt that the regulatory system at OSHA is broken, as former OSHA head David Michaels has said. But the problem is not that there are too many workers protections; it’s that there are too few. It’s not that they are issued too fast; it’s that it takes far too long to protect workers.
Can more be done to make them easier to understand, or to more accurately measure their benefits and costs? Undoubtedly.
But those are the questions that Congress should be considering, not how to make work even more dangerous for workers in the name of regulatory “reform.”