For anyone who was worried (or hoping) that the Trump administration would gut worker safety, the next budget does neither. In the budget request released this week, the administration is requesting roughly the same funding for OSHA as the department received this year. Under the request, OSHA would receive $543 million, about what it had to spend this year.
Dig a little deeper and the administration is trying to alter OSHA’s course to make it more proactive in working with industry to solve safety problems, rather than waiting until a company is caught violating or an employee gets hurt. The budget would increase staffing to support the Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP), which helps companies produce top-quality safety programs. The request would also restore vacancies that have not been filled in the compliance and investigations side. The administration caught flack recently for leaving compliance positions vacant.
On the negative side, the budget requests zero funding for the Susan Harwood Training Grant program just like last year, a decision that upset many in the safety field. Critics also argue that OSHA is already underfunded and a flat budget just causes it to fall further behind.
Remember, for many years Congress has not exactly followed this or any President’s budget requests. However, by asking for the same level of funding, the Administration is signalling that it will not push to lower safety thresholds in the American workplace.
Both Houses of Congress appear to want to cut OSHA’s budget. The question is – how much? In the last week both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees passed spending plans that involve OSHA. The bill from House appropriators cuts OSHA’s budget by about 3%, down from $552.7 million to $535 million for fiscal year 2016. The Senate committee’s bill cuts even deeper, about 5% to $524 million. The White House request to increase OSHA’s budget to $592 didn’t stand a chance.
Under the process, Senate and House negotiators will meet over the summer or in the fall to work out the differences between their bills. With both bills cutting OSHA, it is likely that the final cuts will be somewhere between 3-5%.
The way the game is played in Washington, the details of the budget are usually more significant than the final spending number. In this case, the Senate Appropriations Committee added a last-minute amendment that prohibits OSHA from spending funds to enforce a new silica rule until it studies new technologies and gets more input from small businesses. It has taken OSHA five years to publish the silica rule and this amendment would push that off by several more years. The silica rule would not actually be stopped until the full House and Senate approve the bill, with the amendment, but it is a clear warning to the agency to tread lightly.
What does it all mean? More than anything else, it is more evidence of the toxic relationship between OSHA and Congress. If you wonder why OSHA tries to push through changes without going through the normal rulemaking process and why Congress comes back after the fact to block those changes, it is because there doesn’t appear to be a lot of constructive discussion going on between the two branches of government.