WASHINGTON-One month after the Bush administration killed the Clinton administration's ergonomics rule, the two sides on the debate are farther apart than ever.
At a Senate subcommittee hearing April 26, Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, made Labor Secretary Elaine Chao their whipping girl for the March repeal of the old standard and the lack of a deadline or timetable to issue a new one.
``I want to know what you're going to do and when you're going to do it,'' said Mr. Specter, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education.
Messrs. Specter and Harkin barraged Ms. Chao with hostile questions as she tried to explain her belief that deadlines are inappropriate in a rulemaking as complex as ergonomics.
``The diversity of opinion is truly vast'' on ergonomics issues, Ms. Chao said. ``One of the problems is that there has not been a consensus....Without a consensus, we'll be where we were before March 20 (the day President Bush signed the bill which repealed the Clinton rule), and that wouldn't benefit anyone.''
But Mr. Specter and Mr. Harkin accused Ms. Chao and the Bush administration of wanting to block the issuance of a new ergonomics rule.
``This will drivel on for 10 years,'' said Mr. Harkin, who previously complained that it took more than 10 years to develop the standard that was killed.
``Consensus is fine if you can get it,'' Mr. Specter added. ``Consultation is what you have to do, and you have to do it within a time frame. Most regulations are issued without consensus. If you had consensus, you wouldn't need a Department of Labor or a subcommittee.''
Messrs. Specter and Harkin cut off Ms. Chao's testimony, excusing her without the usual courtesy of thanking her for her time. Outside the hearing room, Ms. Chao spoke against setting ``artificial, unreasonable and unrealistic deadlines'' for a new ergonomics standard.
In her testimony, Ms. Chao said she sought an ergonomics standard based on prevention, sound science and cooperation between government and business. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an agency of the Department of Labor, should avoid the ``one-size-fits-all'' approach and concentrate on ``short, simple and common-sense instructions'' to ensure employer compliance with the rule, she said.
``The ergonomics standard took up over 600 pages, including preambles and appendices, in the Federal Register,'' she said. ``While the standard represented only a portion of these, small business owners faced with the entire 600 pages of supporting documents were understandably frightened. Small business owners lack the legal resources to understand what is required to comply with complex regulations.''
Ms. Chao's testimony showed only one of the points on which business and labor's opinions on an ergonomics standard seemed irreconcilable. Mr. Harkin, in his opening statement, made much of the fact that the actual rule-as opposed to the complete document including explanatory and interpretive sections-totaled only 15 pages.
``It was a compliance-based rule and very flexible,'' he said, waving the pages. ``Considering the atmosphere in Washington today, I doubt if we could get a hard-hat rule passed, and we got that 30 years ago.''