For weeks, top aides to Occupational Safety and Health Administrator Thorne G. Auchter have been telling reporters about their boss' fight to prevent the Office of Management and Budget from weakening existing health and safety standards.
Their pitch may gain some credence this week, thanks to a Business Week story saying OMB is "up in arms" at Auchter's proposed changes, which amount to "tougher and more costly work-place standards" than the Reagan administration expected or wanted.
At one point, Auchter decided to go ahead with plans to publish a revised noise standard in the Federal Register, despite objections from OMB, the magazine reports. OMB countered by dispatching Christopher C. DeMuth, the director of its Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, to complain directly to Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan. This delayed, but did not stop, publication of the proposal.
Nonetheless, staff members of congressional labor committees and many labor union officials are skeptical about reports of the Auchter-OMB confrontation.
"Auchter has never done anything in the past that suggests he would be opposed to any cuts that OMB wants to make," one congressional aide explained.
"It's a bit hard to picture him standing up on his back legs to OMB," added a labor official. "He always has been a good lieutenant in the past."
One reason for the skepticism was the source of the news and the source's diligence in pushing the story. Several reporters received a "tip" about the fighting from one of Auchter's top aides who, in the past, had criticized reporters for reporting leaks from unnamed OSHA sources.
The tips were passed at the same time that Congress was accusing the Environmental Protection Agency of putting business interests first when it made decisions and of playing politics with safety programs--two charges that have dogged Auchter since his appointment to OSHA.
Whatever the status of the arguments between OMB and OSHA, no one doubts that Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) and Auchter have different views of OSHA's recent performance. During a congressional hearing Wednesday, Obey accused Auchter of "institutionizing a process" of "capitulation to industry" worse than has been found at the EPA.
"That's hogwash, congressman," Auchter responded, interrupting Obey. Springing from his seat, Auchter grabbed a large multi-colored chart similar to the ones that grace the walls of his office. It showed, he said, that OSHA has become more efficient and effective under his management without "giving away the store" to business and labor groups.
Obey had criticized Auchter's practice of judging the performance of subordinates, in part, by how many OSHA citations against business are later challenged in court. Obey argued that, if managers are downgraded every time a business challenges a citation, they will put pressure on their inspectors not to issue citations.
Auchter responded that he tracks contested citations to make sure that OSHA inspectors don't spend most of their time in court, rather than in workplaces. He said Obey overemphasized the importance of the evaluation tool. Managers in two regions received top performance ratings even though they have high rates of contested citations, Auchter said.