WASHINGTON – Maryland congressional lawmakers split along party lines Wednesday night, as the House voted 223-206 to repeal ergonomic standards imposed by President Clinton during his final days in office.
All four Maryland Democrats voted to keep the regulations, while all four Republicans voted to eliminate the standards, which were aimed at preventing repetitive stress injuries and other musculoskeletal disorders.
Maryland’s two Democratic senators both voted to keep the rules Tuesday night, as the Senate voted 56-44 to repeal. GOP senators were joined by six Democrats in the vote to repeal.
The standards took effect Jan. 16, capping a 10-year effort by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to target injuries that the National Academy of Sciences said affect 1 million U.S. workers and cost between $45 billion and $54 billion annually. The regulations would have affected 102 million workers and cost employers $4.5 billion annually, according to OSHA.
“Countless small business owners in the 6th District have asked me to do everything I can to repeal these extraordinarily onerous regulations,” said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, in a press release. “With today’s vote, we send the message to future presidents that if you impose a regulation with an executive order that would hurt America, Congress will repeal it.”
But a clearly angry Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, took the floor during the one-hour debate before the vote to deride the leadership for its failure to hold hearings or have sufficient debate.
“I ask the new members of Congress, did you expect to have no hearings on this issue?” Hoyer asked. “That’s not the way a legislature is supposed to work.”
In a news conference prior to the Tuesday vote, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D- Baltimore, condemned the repeal in similarly emotional terms.
“What it does is turn back the clock to the 19th century, when industrial barons were satisfied that 9-year-olds could work in sweatshops and people could work in coal mines with the only safety device being the canary,” she said.
Local labor leaders said they were not surprised by the votes.
“I would expect them to vote along party lines,” said Glenard Middleton, executive director of Maryland Council 67 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He said the vote was shortsighted, but that the union was “very proud of the voting record” of the Democrats.
James August, director of occupation, safety and health for AFSCME, said he was disheartened by the possibility of the regulations’ elimination. He called the regulations, “the most important action OSHA has taken toward the most dangerous issue out there.”
“This is an outrageous act by a vindictive, mean-spirited Congress,” August said. “We’ve worked really hard for a very long time, and they’re using myths, distortions and outright lies.”
The mood couldn’t have been more different in the business community.
“We’re pleased that Congress has listened to the concerns of small businesses,” said Kim Bosgraaf, manager of regulatory policy for the National Federation of Independent Business. “Small businesses are already protecting their employees. They have a vested interest in protecting their workers.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce “applauded the Senate’s bipartisan rejection of the Clinton administration’s ‘ill-conceived, expensive and unscientific’ ergonomics rule,” in a news release, and lobbied the House heavily to do the same.
Then-Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole began work on the standards in 1990, calling repetitive-stress injuries “one of the nation’s most debilitating across-the-board worker safety and health illnesses.”
OSHA issued proposed standards in November 1999, and issued final regulations a year later, after 700 people testified and 8,000 wrote comments on the proposal. Clinton issued an executive order to implement them.
This week’s votes were Congress’ first use of the Congressional Review Act of 1996, which lets lawmakers repeal a regulation created by presidential executive order within 60 days of its publication.
The resolution will be sent to the White House, and President Bush indicated he will sign it.