As Obama, Party Leaders Begin Budget Talks, Safety Advocates Mull Impact of OSHA Cuts

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 Health Administration.

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 Control Act.

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.

Reid Sees Cornerstones in Place

“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 meeting.

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 fiscal challenges.

White House Forecasts $46 Million Cut for OSHA

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 843, 9/20/12).

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 Nov. 19.

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.”

Could Professionals Fill Void?

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 program rulemaking.

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. 19.

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.

Fear of New Status Quo

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, Livermore said.

“We just had an election, and there's always some soul searching on both sides and reevaluating of bargaining positions on both sides,” Livermore said.

GOP, Obama Stake Out Positions

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 Lee
Contributing 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