Democrats Ask Labor to Forgo 'Secret Rule'

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2008

Congressional leaders demanded yesterday that the Labor Department withdraw an eleventh-hour rule proposal that would make it more difficult to set industry limits on the amount of dangerous chemicals that U.S. workers are exposed to on the job.

In a letter to Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao, the Democratic chairmen of the Senate and House labor committees accused her department of crafting a secret rule in the final months of the Bush administration, with the goal of weakening worker safety and helping businesses avoid regulations.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and Rep. George Miller (Calif.) said Chao's department violated the rule requiring federal agencies to alert the public twice a year to any directives it was considering. They asked her to turn over internal documents of any meetings or communications Labor officials had with business or outside groups relating to the proposal.

Their demand came the day The Washington Post reported that the agency began actively researching the proposal as early as last September, when it commissioned a $347,000 outside study of the idea. It did not disclose its interest until it formally submitted a draft rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget on July 7.

"For nearly eight years, this administration has consistently failed to respond in a meaningful way to the real health and safety threats workers face while on the job," Miller said. "But now they will stop at nothing to rush through a secret rule that will tie the hands of health and safety experts."

The proposed rule, which would have the force of law, would call for reexamining long-standing agency assumptions used to weigh risks from toxins, including the notion that some workers spend 45 years in the same kind of job. The proposal has not been made public, but according to sources and internal documents, it aims to address business complaints that previous agency risk assessments exaggerate risk and cost industry too much.

Leon R. Sequeira, assistant labor secretary for policy, said, "Any call for withdrawal of the draft proposal is as premature as the inaccurate speculation reported about the intent of the proposal, since it hasn't been published for public comment yet."

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