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For Obama Supporters, Time to Call In Favors

By Cindy Skrzycki
Friday, November 28, 2008

Whether it's workplace injuries, beer taxes or family leave, it's payback time for Obama supporters in the regulatory arena.

As the Jan. 20 inauguration draws near, groups that worked hard to put a Democrat in the White House are jockeying to be first in line to make suggestions on health and safety issues after waiting through eight years of Bush deregulation.

"There are huge expectations among those asking," said Sidney Shapiro, a law professor at Wake Forest University and a scholar at the Center for Progressive Reform, a nonprofit research group in Edgewater, Md. "There is a lot of pent-up demand because we have gone so long with the stars not being lined up the way they are."

Labor unions and even business lobbies are linking their wish lists to the new administration's focus on economic recovery. A group of public-interest organizations recommended changes to the regulatory review system that it had fought under President Bush.

The nation's brewers are trying to persuade the new leadership to cut the $3.7 billion federal excise tax on the 211 million barrels of beer produced in the United States last year. The tax is collected and policed by the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

"We believe, based on who our customer is and the rhetoric in the campaign, that these are people who deserve a tax cut -- a tax cut on beer," said Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute in Washington, which represents brewers, importers and suppliers.

Organized labor, after eight years of seeing workplace regulation virtually dry up, has a long list of initiatives that it sees as part of a vigorous economy.

"This is a unique moment in time," said Bill Samuel, director of government affairs for the AFL-CIO. "The public supports the revitalization of the union movement, and the party in power supports it." Member unions supplied 250,000 volunteer workers to aid Obama's election, an AFL-CIO spokesman said.

Labor's first priority is a federal law offering a card checkoff as an alternative to secret-ballot elections for union representation. Success would mean a series of new rules from the National Labor Relations Board. Another objective, a dead letter in the Bush administration, is protecting workers from repetitive-stress and heavy-lifting injuries in the workplace. A Clinton-era rule was nullified by a 2001 vote in Congress. That law says a similar rule can't be enacted, making the unions' path to a new ergonomics rule difficult.

"Ergonomics is an important, complicated issue," said Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO director of safety and health. "There needs to be a lot of thought on how to move forward."

Business is stridently opposed to both labor goals.

"It will rival the battle over the Taft-Hartley Act," said Randel Johnson, a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's largest business lobby, referring to the controversy surrounding the 1947 passage of the law, which restricted union actions.

The Chamber has compiled its own long list of regulatory initiatives it will oppose in the Obama administration. It includes expansion of a law giving workers notice of plant closings and additions to family and medical leave rules.

Some interest groups are looking forward and back, seeking to advance their goals while getting the Obama team to reverse last-minute rules issued by the Bush administration.

Steffany Stern, policy analyst with the National Partnership for Women & Families in Washington, a nonprofit group involved in workplace issues, said supporters of family leave seek to expand the program to cover more workers, include new types of leave, add covered family members and, for the first time, provide paid leave. The group also wants parts of the new Bush rule changed.

One collection of public-interest groups issued a report suggesting that the new president "give significant attention to fixing the regulatory process." That includes naming a blue-ribbon commission to examine how to make it more efficient and not allowing extensive involvement by the White House in rulemaking and the review of rules, as was the practice under Bush.

"The current regulatory system is largely dysfunctional," said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a Washington nonprofit that monitors executive-branch policy and that initiated the project.

The Center for Progressive Reform proposed seven executive orders, including one to require that children's risk from chemical exposure be measured in rulemakings, and that federal rules not be used to preempt victims' rights to sue under state laws.

In releasing its agenda a week after the election, the center said the executive orders would "send a clear message that a new sheriff is in town."

Cindy Skrzycki is a regulatory columnist with Bloomberg News. She can be reached at cskrzycki@bloomberg.net.

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