As the White House and congressional leaders continue deliberations to avert
the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, labor advocates have begun
closely eyeing the effects the cuts would have on the Occupational Safety and
Under sequestration, most federal programs would face an automatic,
across-the-board cut on Jan. 2 if Congress cannot agree on a plan to trim the
national debt. In total, $1.2 trillion would be cut from the federal budget over
nine years. The sequestration procedure was enacted in the August 2011 Budget
On Nov. 16, congressional leaders from both parties met with President Obama
to lay out a basic plan for how to proceed with negotiations, but avoided any
discussion of specific proposals or numerical targets for revenues or spending
cuts, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters.
“We have the cornerstones of being able to work something out,” Senate
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. “We're both going to have to give up
some of the things that we know are a problem.”
While Republicans and Democrats are far apart on how to address the pending
expiration of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts at the end of the year, the two sides
said the meeting showed a basic level of agreement that they need to produce a
target amount for deficit reduction in the coming weeks.
“Once we settle on those targets, the speaker proposed, we can create simple
mechanisms, in statute, that would achieve those revenue and spending goals.
They would be in place unless or until more thoughtful policies replace them,”
an aide to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in an email following the
Pelosi said staff members are already beginning to work on proposals to be
presented in another meeting after the Thanksgiving break.
For their first meeting, the president and the top congressional leaders
strived to show they are prepared to work together to address the nation's
In September, the White House said sequestration would reduce OSHA's budget
by $46 million. The agency's budget is currently set at $564.8 million (42 OSHR
An earlier report,
issued in July by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health,
Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, found that cuts of $44 million would
force OSHA to reduce its staff by 81 full-time employees and conduct 2,100 fewer
programmed inspections (42 OSHR 695, 8/2/12).
The drop-off in inspections is particularly worrisome to labor supporters,
Keith Wrightson, worker safety and health advocate at Public Citizen, told BNA
Under sequestration, many potential hazards will not be identified, and
OSHA's response time will be lengthened, Wrightson said.
“And they're already underfunded,” he said. “They're charged with so much.
How many people work in this country? How many workplaces are there? Their reach
is rather narrow.”
To fill the void, occupational safety and health professionals not affiliated
with the government might be able to help the agencies with workplace reviews,
though not inspections, said Aaron Trippler, government affairs director at the
American Industrial Hygiene Association.
Trippler also predicted that, faced with sequestration cuts, OSHA will most
likely narrow its focus on enforcement and its injury and illness prevention
OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program, which Democratic administrations have
traditionally not embraced as fully as Republican administrations, may be
especially vulnerable if the agency's funding is cut, Trippler told BNA Nov.
But Michael Livermore, executive director of the New York University
Institute for Policy Integrity, told BNA Nov. 19 that even if sequestration is
triggered, Jan. 2 is not likely to have drastic, immediate impacts on agencies,
because most of them “have tricks up their sleeves to deal with short-term
budget shortfalls,” such as shifting funds from one program area to another.
For that reason, Jan. 2 does not necessarily represent doomsday for most
agencies, according to Livermore.
A greater fear is whether, if enacted, the cuts will become the new status
quo for government funding, Livermore said.
“If I was an agency, that's what I would worry about, more than the
short-term effects,” Livermore said. “It's the same way that the shift of the
status quo has been part of the discussion for tax reform: If the Bush-era tax
cuts expire, then that becomes the new bargaining baseline. So the concern would
be that the same dynamic would hold, and now you're talking about increasing
agencies' budgets from the status quo rather than keeping things constant.”
Livermore also said the two parties could reach a deal because there is
enough overlap between the world views of the negotiators.
But whether or not they actually will reach a deal is another question,
“We just had an election, and there's always some soul searching on both
sides and reevaluating of bargaining positions on both sides,” Livermore
While House Republicans strategize on how far they must move to the left to
meet the President, and how much doing so exposes their right flank in coming
primaries, Obama must determine how much he should compromise, given that he was
reelected by a substantial margin after campaigning on tax reform and defense
spending cuts, Livermore said.
Trippler said he was more pessimistic about a deal being reached, but remains
hopeful that sequestration will be delayed for some months.
In the long run, however, he forecast a frozen, or even reduced, budget for
OSHA, notwithstanding the fiscal cliff.
“There just aren't enough funds out there to give the agency much of an
increase,” Trippler said.
By Stephen LeeContributing to
this report were Cheryl Bolen, Brett Ferguson, Aaron E. Lorenzo, Jonathan Nicholson, and Heather Rothman(Washington, D.C.)
Sen. Tom Harkin's report, Under Threat: Sequestration's Impact on
Nondefense Jobs and Services, is available at http://op.bna.com/env.nsf/r?Open=sbra-8wqrje.