WASHINGTON – Enforcement of just one part of the USA Patriot Act — restricting certain persons’ access to potentially deadly pathogens — can’t begin until federal bureaucrats spell out details in new regulations.
But legislation that would give bureaucrats the go-ahead to draft those regulations has been idling in Congress since mid-December. Until the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Response Act wins final approval, no rules can be written.
“Our job is to implement the laws as passed. Until that happens we cannot do anything on our own,” said Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Bill Pierce.
Even when the department gets the go-ahead, Pierce said, “It could take months or it could take years,” to craft final regulations. Until then, he said, his agency had no interim guidance for researchers.
That leaves officials like University of Maryland Bio-Safety Officer Janet Peterson “just waiting” for word on how to proceed.
The bioterrorism response act would direct federal Health and Justice departments to develop personnel screening protocols for one section of the Patriot Act, which criminalizes the possession and handling of federally designated pathogens by certain persons.
It would also add suspected terrorists and criminal suspects to the list of people who cannot handle potentially deadly pathogens, after those groups were left out of the expedited Patriot Act. Other groups banned under the Patriot Act include aliens from seven countries suspected of cooperating with terrorists, persons with “mental defects,” felons and people dishonorably discharged from the military.
“Congress has not really swung back into action since the (holiday) break,” said American Society of Microbiologists lobbyist Janet Shoemaker. As a result, Shoemaker said, her members are in a “quandary” about how to comply with the provisions of the Patriot Act.
“We had assumed that Congress would act rapidly, after what happened with anthrax,” Shoemaker said. “So we expected it (the bill) to be passed at the end of December and to now be writing the regulations.”
As a result, Shoemaker said, none of her members have taken steps to investigate their lab workers. She said her members are in “limbo” right now.
Peterson said the University of Maryland has taken no action on the Patriot Act.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Deputy Director John La Montagne said the Bethesda-based institute does not know how or when it will comply with the provisions of the act.
A spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee said Friday that the bioterror bill has passed both chambers of Congress, but that no date has been set for a conference committee to meet.
Shoemaker was philosophical about the delays.
“But then again they (Congress) wanted to get it right, I think,” Shoemaker said, adding that she expects the bill will become law next month.
Then the regulations-writing process begins.