Congressional repeal of workplace-injury rules issued in the final months of President Clinton's term in office would mark a major turning point in one of the longest-running, most contentious regulatory efforts ever undertaken by the federal government.
While it is possible that Bush officials will start over, and again study how to protect employees from health problems caused by repetitive tasks such as data entry or heavy lifting, new regulations proposed by a GOP administration would likely be more limited in scope than those drawn up by Democrats.
If nothing else, the effort to repeal the ergonomics rules shows the practical effect of power politics. Green Party leader Ralph Nader's jabs aside, there are large differences between the two big parties. The doomed regulations would have affected, for good or bad, every workplace in America. They were one of the top priorities of a core sector of Al Gore's support: labor unions.
"This is a big blow for labor. It's something they've pushed strongly and aggressively for in the past," says Sung Won Sohn, chief economist at Wells Fargo Bank. "It was their show of strength under the Clinton administration."
Indeed, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, speaking after the Senate voted Tuesday 56-to-44 to undo the rules, called the action "a naked payoff to big-business contributors who have opposed every effort to enact a standard protecting workers."
Not so, countered Republicans. The values at stake were freedom and restraint.
"It's probably the most expensive, intrusive regulation ever promulgated," said Sen. Don Nickles (R) of Oklahoma.
Few dispute that repeating the same physical action over and over can cause injury.
A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, requested by industry groups opposed to the Clinton-issued regulations, estimated that up to 1 million people lose time at work each year due to ergonomics-related injuries. The cost to the economy: $50 billion a year, according to NAS estimates.
The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) first began looking into issuing regulations intended to prevent such injuries in 1990, under former President George Bush. After Bill Clinton took office, the effort expanded. After Republicans won control of the House in 1994, the battle over the scope of proposed regulations became a bitter one.
House Republicans managed to block the new ergonomics regulations throughout the mid-1990s. Only in 1997, after OSHA promised to restudy some of the science and economics behind the issue, did the House GOP allow work to proceed.
For years OSHA insisted that the regulations …