Sooner or later it was bound to happen. It's just that nobody thought it would take this long.
After more than a year without enough members to legally function, the three-member Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission is back in business. The event was such big news at the agency that it issued a press release to announce it was back after a 13-month holiday from regulatory history.
With a note of triumph, the press release said the agency "one day after regaining a full complement of three commission members acted on two cases remanded to the agency from an appellate court and issued final orders in three other cases."
The commission returned to work after Congress approved the Bush administration appointments of Velma Montoya and Donald G. Wiseman as commissioners. Commission Chairman Edwin G. Foulke was appointed in March.
The release didn't say what the commission had been doing between April 27, 1989, and May 24, 1990, when it finally had a quorum again.
"A lot of people ask that," said Earl R. Ohman Jr., the commission's general counsel. "We have never not had any work to do at the staff level." Ohman said the commission's 19 administrative law judges and the staff that supports them were able to continue operating throughout the period.
Ohman said the "overwhelming majority" of the cases that come there for review are settled before they ever reach the commission level. "That whole part of the operation was unaffected," he said.
Anything that required the attention of the full commission had to wait, Ohman said. Under the law, the commission is charged with ruling on cases sent from the Labor Department when disagreements arise over federal safety and health inspections.
If there was any consolation, however, it might have been the fact that the commission staff was prepared for the hiatus. It had happened before. In the mid-1980s, the commission went 18 months without a quorum.
"It's politics," said Ohman. "For us it's very frustrating."