Thomas Cass Ballenger, in his roles as small-town industrialist, civic benefactor and veteran congressman from the western hills of North Carolina, always displayed a talent for fund-raising. But the money never came easier than during the congressional elections last fall, when he traveled around his state soliciting contributions for candidates who would serve as ground troops for the Republican revolution. Wherever Ballenger spoke, checkbooks opened at the mention of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), a regulatory agency that had emerged as a symbol of everything the business world disliked about the federal government. His vision of a House of Representatives controlled by Republicans, as Ballenger later described it, went like this: "I'd say, Guess who might be chairman of the committee who'd be in charge of OSHA?' " "And they'd say, Who?' "And I'd say, Me!' "And I'd say, I need some money.' And -- whoosh! -- I got it. This was my sales pitch: Businessmen, wouldn't you like to have a friend overseeing OSHA?' " Indeed they would. They liked the idea so much that they gave Ballenger more than $65,000 to distribute to Republican candidates, including five from North Carolina who went on to win seats previously held by Democrats. The partisan transformation of the Tarheel delegation was an essential part of the Republican takeover of the House, and it led, among other things, to a new and decidedly pro-management chairman for the House subcommittee on work-force protections -- Cass Ballenger. A panel that for years had been controlled by the son of a Michigan auto worker killed in an industrial fire was now headed by a deceptively easygoing, 68-year-old good old boy from Hickory who was educated at Amherst, inherited his family's box company and made his fortune producing plastic bags for underwear. Ballenger and his allies are now fulfilling a promise made during the campaign. With the strong lobbying support of business coalitions, including corporations who are both repeated OSHA violators and leading financial contributors to the GOP, they are pushing the first viable legislative effort to diminish OSHA's powers since its creation a quarter-century ago. The Safety and Health Improvement and Regulatory Reform Act of 1995 would shrink the size of the investigative staff, shift the emphasis to consultation, eliminate separate research and mine-safety operations, and curtail the agency's powers to penalize workplaces that fail to meet federal health and safety standards. Most of the attention in the House this seminal political year has been focused on the "Contract With America," the balanced budget and Speaker Newt Gingrich's pronouncements. But the OSHA measure is at the center of a quieter struggle, albeit one with major philosophical and economic consequences. The refashioning of OSHA -- in combination with attempts to repeal wage and union security laws enacted over the decades by Congress's old Democratic majority -- amounts to what labor scholars call the most serious effort to rewrite the rules of the American workplace in the postwar era. The vast bureaucratic system constructed from those laws was based on a question of trust: Whom do you trust with a worker's welfare -- the employer or a federal regulator? The time has come, members of the Republican Congress argue, to reword the answer. "I think employers now take a different approach with their workers than they have in the past," said Rep. Lindsey Graham, a freshman Republican from South Carolina and a member of Ballenger's subcommittee. "My job is to get the government up to speed with the times. And the times for me are to reevaluate the role of the federal government in private business. If you believe that is the mandate, OSHA is a great place to start." Although OSHA was established during the presidency of Richard M. Nixon and has been run by Republican-appointed administrators for 18 of its 25 years, it is scorned by House Republicans as the archetype of a liberal program gone astray. They describe it as a place where swarms of inspectors swoop down to intimidate innocent merchants, professionals and manufacturers, drown businesses in paperwork and are more interested in imposing fines than ensuring safety. "They need to do what the hell they're told," said Charles W. Norwood Jr., a dentist from Georgia and the most intense of the Republican freshmen in his dislike of OSHA. "They've been sitting in their little cubicles for 25 years thinking they knew what was best for every industry in this country. They don't. And they don't want to know. All they want to know is what they can get away with to collect money from us." Many Democrats find their predicament ironic. Year after year they complained that OSHA was ineffective and needed more inspectors and tougher standards. In the last session of Congress, before they lost control, they pushed legislation that would strengthen the agency in the very places where Republicans seek to weaken it. But now they are caught in a rear-guard action defending the status quo, arguing that OSHA, for all its faults, has been a savior for American workers. They cite statistics showing that OSHA saves an estimated 6,000 lives each year and has led to significant decreases in workplace injuries and illnesses. Behind the cover of reform, they say, Republicans are exacting corporate revenge, using the paperwork complaints of small businesses to enrich the management class at the expense of blue-collar workers. The arguments mark a profound shift of political forces. For years business had felt an obligation to pay homage to the Democratic masters of Congress, even where their interests differed. The Republican takeover created opportunities to bring politics in line with corporate objectives, none more important than rewriting labor laws and loosening the grip of government regulations. In moving from a marriage of convenience to one of shared passions, the business world has showered the Republican Congress with financial rewards. In a single evening last May, at the "New Majority" dinner to raise money for the next congressional election, companies lobbying for labor law changes gave more than $1 million. With the stakes so high, the debate over OS\HA has crackled with fiery rhetoric and melodramatic anecdotes. From the business world comes a bumper sticker that only slightly exaggerates the prevailing sentiment: "OSHA is America's KGB -- It Turns the American Dream into a Nightmare." In the matter-of-fact words of Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, a former plastics salesman who now serves as chairman of the House Republican Conference and the leadership's liaison to business: "Most employers would describe OSHA as the Gestapo of the federal government." Business leaders pass along tales of bureaucratic overzealousness, such as the case in Augusta, Ga., where a nonprofit group was fined $7,500 by OSHA for using mothballs to chase squirrels out of the attic and failing to post a notice describing the chemicals contained in the mothballs. From labor comes a sarcastic title for Ballenger's bill -- the Death and Injury Enhancement (DIE) Act of 1995. Democrat Major R. Owens of New York, ranking minority member of Ballenger's panel, reads off the names of men and women killed in the workplace and likens the toll to the death count in Vietnam. Unionists recount workplace tragedies that might have been avoided if not for management carelessness, such as the case in Grand Island, Neb., where a maintenance man at a meatpacking plant had his "head popped like a pimple," in the indelicate phrase of a co-worker, when he tried to retrieve his pliers from a carcass defleshing machine that turned on because it lacked the required safety locks. 'See What Can Happen'
Cass Ballenger saw more than a few workplace injuries during his years as a manufacturer in Hickory, an industrial town whose streets are lined with hosiery mills. When he switched his family business from boxes to plastic bags, he often worked the machines himself. A contraption called the scoring machine was particularly troublesome, he said. "The clutch on it was mechanical and the dang thing always slipped. You'd be wiping grease off it and the cloth would get caught in the gears and, thwack, it would just cut your fingers off."
That was before the days of OSHA, Ballenger noted, and employers and workers relied on "simple common sense." Ballenger kept all his digits, but when someone at his plant lost a finger, he would say, " See what can happen? Put the guard back on and don't do that again.' You'd learn not to do that anymore."
From the first time inspectors visited his factory, Ballenger's relationship with OSHA was quarrelsome. "They came into my plant and they told me that my loading dock was unsafe because it didn't have a barrier to keep people from falling off," he recalled in a recent interview. "And so I said, Well, let me ask you something, if you put a barrier up, how do you load?' They thought about it and said maybe they were wrong."
Ballenger is a southern storyteller who acknowledges that he occasionally delves into hyperbole to make points. Whether the loading dock inspection happened precisely as he remembered it is unclear. There are no records of the event. But it is important for two reasons. First, in the business world's catalogue of nonsensical OSHA actions, which is an assortment of documented cases and utter myths, the loading dock episode is prominently featured, told and retold in various versions around the country. Second, it shaped Ballenger's perceptions from then on as he dealt as a lawmaker with OSHA.
North Carolina is among two dozen states where federal OSHA standards are enforced at the state level. When Ballenger was in the legislature in Raleigh, he sat on the committee overseeing OSHA and constantly fought with the state labor commissioner, John Brooks. "Every time John came in and said, We are underfunded and need more inspectors,' and told us how it was awful that we didn't think about the health and safety of the workers of North Carolina," Ballenger said, he would be thinking, "Here's this horse's ass who runs a lousy operation asking us for more money."
There was a personal aspect to Ballenger's animosity that extended beyond the loading dock incident. He accused Brooks of conducting "political raids" on his bag plant, inspecting it three times only because he was a prominent Republican in what was then a Democratic state government. Brooks called the accusation groundless: Factories were chosen for inspection by a random computer system. "There is no human way to tamper with that system," Brooks said. "Cass knows that and was offered the opportunity to see it working."
"If you believe that," Ballenger responded, "I've got a bridge I'd like to sell you." 'Sympathetic to the Cause'
From the time he reached Washington in 1987 as a House freshman, boasting that he was the only member who had been cited for workplace violations, Ballenger worked on OS\HA legislation with a group of Republicans on the old Education and Labor Committee. Their efforts were defensive, trying to stop the Democrats and their labor allies from expanding the agency's powers. "Then, all of a sudden, oops! We got control," Ballenger said of the 1994 elections.
His first task as chairman of the work-force protections subcommittee of the renamed Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee was to pick a team of Republicans lawmakers to help him remake OSHA. "I wanted people sympathetic to the cause," he said. "I was looking for pro-business people."
Harris W. Fawell of suburban Chicago had been working with Ballenger on OSHA bills during the Democratic era and would be helpful this time around. Bill Barrett of Nebraska carried the complaints of the meatpacking plants in his district. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, whose district included the chicken giant Tyson Foods, would look out for the poultry processors. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, who came out of the furniture industry, "hated OS\HA with a passion," Ballenger thought. James C. Greenwood of suburban Philadelphia was the most moderate of the veterans, but Ballenger respected him. "I asked him where he would stand on OSHA," Ballenger recalled. "And he said, I'll be with you.'"
Then Ballenger recruited three freshmen. He brought in David Funderburk, one of the gang of five from North Carolina. "Oh, I knew Funderburk. Hoo, boy!" said Ballenger, explaining that he considered his Tarheel colleague even more conservative than he was. When Lindsey Graham, a freshman from South Carolina, signed on, Ballenger hailed him as "a good old southern boy -- you can count on them every time." And finally there was Charles Norwood, the dentist from Augusta who arrived in Washington last winter with OSHA dead in his sights. "Everybody knew about Charlie," Ballenger said, smiling.
For all the decades that the labor subcommittees were dominated by Democrats, Republicans who were assigned to the panels tended to include a disproportionate share of moderates. Now, in the first year of Republican rule, Cass Ballenger looked at his group and declared that he was about to have some fun. "My subcommittee is so conservative it makes me look liberal," he said. "We could kill motherhood tomorrow if it was necessary."
One of his freshmen put it another way. "This has been a subchapter of the AFL-CIO for 20 years," said Lindsey Graham. "Now everybody here talks slower -- and with a twang." 'Pushed Too Far'
Graham and Norwood, whose congressional districts sit next to each other along the South Carolina-Georgia border, provide much of the new twang. They grew up in Democratic families and became the first Republican congressmen from their districts since Reconstruction. In their own ways, they represent the social, economic and philosophical forces behind the Republican revolution and the movement away from government regulation.
The 40-year-old Graham grew up in the textile town of Seneca, where his parents ran the Sanitary Cafe, a bar outside the factory gate. It was a beer and hot dog place with a juke box that played "Satin sheets to lie on, satin sheets to cry on." When the factory shift changed at 3 every afternoon, young Graham would see the mill workers "come in with their shirts covered with cotton, white as they could be. There'd be a finger missing on every other person."
Although he considered his home town an "Andy Griffith of Mayberry type place," he also saw the failings of the old system. The textile plant treated its workers like children, he said, and placed a greater emphasis on productivity than safety. Graham understood that it was necessary for the government to come in then and make workplaces safer, just as he realized that the segregated system his parents were part of -- they made black workers buy beer from a takeout window out back -- was wrong and required the force of government action to eradicate.
But by the time Graham ran for Congress last year, he had long since become convinced that the pendulum had swung too far toward federal intervention. He thought the role of the government in mandating affirmative action and regulating workplaces had "gone from being helpful to being the biggest obstacle dividing and polarizing the nation by race and by employers and employees." It was his generation's mission, Graham said, to "correct the excesses of government from the past generation."
One day during his congressional race, Graham had what his campaign manager, David Woodard, called "an epiphany." Graham had delivered a noon speech at a small-town Rotary Club, where he received a tepid response. Concerned that he had not figured out how to tap into the old southern Democratic establishment, Graham then paid a visit to a textile mill on the edge of town. He later told Woodard that the plant manager was so agitated he threw a sheaf of papers to the ground and bellowed, "No more damn Democrats. They've got all these inspectors on me. All these crappy regs!"
Afterward, Graham placed an excited call to his campaign manager. "He said, We may not have the Rotary, but we have the people running the mills,' " Woodard recalled. "From then on, he picked up the theme."
Norwood, a 54-year-old dentist, sounded that theme from the day he announced for Congress in suburban Augusta, calling himself a businessman "who just got pushed too far" by government regulators. It started a decade earlier when OSHA began taking an active role in the dental profession to ensure that employees and patients were not endangered by blood-borne pathogens such as the AIDS virus. Dentists, Norwood said, did not need to be inspected or told how to maintain safe offices.
Norwood became so upset by the federal health and safety standards, which he said required his dental team to use 200 pairs of gloves each day and set up laundry services within his office, that he began placing an explicit "OSHA surcharge" on the bills he sent to patients. The charges amounted to about $10 per visit. When patients complained, Norwood told them to call their congressman. Then he decided that he wanted to be the congressman. Although he had never run for political office, Norwood had developed a state and national network of dentists from his earlier position as president of the Georgia Dental Association. He raised more than $90,000 from his dental colleagues.
Much like Ballenger in North Carolina, Norwood was motivated in part by a personal experience. The Department of Labor had once investigated him for not paying overtime to his office aides after a disgruntled former employee filed a complaint. Norwood said it would have cost him more to fight the complaint than settle it, but he never forgot the $10,000 the incident cost him nor the role of the federal investigators. From then on he referred to them as "storm troopers." One morning on the campaign trail, Norwood turned to his young aide, Gabe Sterling, and asked him to find out who was in charge of OSHA. Sterling called Washington and learned that it was an undersecretary of labor named Joseph Dear. From then on, wherever he spoke to businessmen in his district, Norwood would say, "You know, that fellow who runs OSHA, that Joe Dear, well when I get up to Washington I'm gonna call that Joe Dear at 5 every morning and explain to him the problems with OSHA."
It did not take long for Chairman Ballenger to realize that he had a firebrand on his subcommittee. There was no need to reform OS\HA, Norwood told Ballenger. They should just close the place down, fire everyone who worked there and then start over. "The only way to do it is to get rid of that crowd," he said. Ballenger might have agreed, but he knew it would have been counterproductive. "I said, That's stupid. You can't win that way. You gotta have a bill,' " Ballenger recalled. "I'm smart enough, or dumb enough, to realize that if we don't pass the bill, we haven't done a darn thing."
Tomorrow: The making of the bill. CAPTION: OSHA's Overseers With corporate support, these lawmakers are pushing the first viable legislative effort to diminish OSHA's powers since its creation. Labor scholars say the Republicans' effort is part of the most serious attempt to rewrite the rules of the U.S. workplace in the postwar era. CAPTION: Cass Ballenger, Chairman of House Economic and Educational Opportunities panel on work-force protections; an old distaste for OSHA and a new taste of power. CAPTION: Lindsey Graham, A freshman on a mission to "correct the excesses of government from the past generation." CAPTION: Charles Norwood, A dentist "pushed too far" by regulators who "have been sitting in their little cubicles for 25 years thinking they know what's best for every industry." CAPTION: Bill Barrett: Carried the complaints of meatpackers from Nebraska. CAPTION: Tim Hutchinson: On the lookout for Arkansas' poultry processors. CAPTION: Harris Fawell: Veteran OSHA foe from the Chicago suburbs counted on for help. CAPTION: Peter Hoekstra: Michigan congressman who was thought to have "hated OSHA with a passion." CAPTION: James Greenwood: The moderate of the group assured Ballenger, "I'll be with you." CAPTION: David Funderburk: Tarheel freshman was considered a conservative's conservative.