When the House and Senate reconvene on September 6 there will be a number of interesting legislative and regulatory initiatives on the agenda.
ASSOCIATION HEALTH PLAN LEGISLATION
The House of Representatives passed its version of AHP legislation, H.R. 525, by a vote of 263-165, shortly before the August recess. It is our hope that this will put further pressure on the Senate to move a bill forward in the Fall. White House staff and Department of Labor officials have been meeting in recent weeks with the staff of Senator Enzi to discuss the legislation and it is anticipated that Senator Enzi will begin to take action on a bill in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee shortly after the August recess. I will provide a further update on the issue in September when there has been some additional action in the Senate.
The White House is stepping up its efforts to promote passage of an immigration reform bill. While the Administration is leaving most of the details of a bill to Congress, they have been sending very strong signals to the business community that the President would support a plan to allow illegal residents to apply for guest-worker visas in order to ensure that businesses retain the necessary workforce levels to keep up with demand. Just recently a new organization - Americans for Border and Economic Security (ABES) - has been formed to engage and educate key audiences, policy makers and industry leaders and organize grassroots support for reasonable immigration reform. If anyone has any interest in getting involved with ABES, please let me know.
In conversations I've had with the White House on the issue, they tend to agree with me that with all the border enforcement issues in New Mexico and Arizona as well as concerns about day laborer sites, immigration seems to be pushing ahead of Social Security as more of a priority for Congress. But there remains much disagreement as to how to move forward. People like House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Representative Tom Tancredo (R-CO) believe that the border enforcement issue should be addressed before other immigration rules are revised. Senators Cornyn of Texas and Kyl of Arizona, who introduced a comprehensive immigration reform measure earlier this summer, promote the creation of two-year visas and require guest workers and illegals to leave the country before applying for the chance to work in the U.S. again legally. Senators McCain and Kennedy have proposed a bill to create 400,000 three-year visas for guest workers, with flexibility to add more in future years. Although I have had conversations with staff on the Senate Judiciary Committee about further hearings on immigration proposals, the Committee will obviously have its hands full with the hearings on John Roberts nomination to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.
Speaker Hastert has indicated he would like to move an immigration reform measure through the House this fall, but has not given any indication as to what the components of such a measure should be. Needless to say, the overall reform effort will be an enormous undertaking but this is an important issue for the business community. The economy, particularly the construction segment, is growing faster than the availability of qualified and willing workers and it is up to us to help make strong economic arguments for immigration reform which will sustain our industry. I'll keep you posted on further developments.
REPEAL OF THE ESTATE TAX
I understand from the staff of the Senate Finance Committee that negotiations between Senator Kyl (R-AZ) and several key Democrats over repeal of the estate tax are still ongoing. In order to help drive those negotiations forward, the Senate may schedule a vote on a motion to proceed to a vote on a bill to make permanent the repeal of the estate tax. Senator Frist, the Majority Leader, has made it clear to the media in recent weeks that the Senate will be required to vote on this issue in some form or another. Let's hope Senator Frist makes that happen in September.
OSHA REFORM BILLS
On July 12, the House, by an overwhelming margin, passed the four OSHA reform bills authored by Congressman Charlie Norwood. These bills are a good first step in restoring fairness and due process for small businesses when they are faced with OSHA citations, including the possibility of recovering attorneys' fees when contractors successfully defend against a citation. In a perfect world, the Senate would act on these important reforms; unfortunately, the Chairman of the Senate HELP Committee, Senator Enzi, has other ideas about what these reform measures should entail. In fact, one of Senator Enzi's bills contains provisions for increasing criminal violations of the OSH Act. I and others have made it very clear to Senator Enzi's HELP Committee staff that this is a non-starter and we strongly oppose the bill. Although Senator Enzi had originally planned to introduce his OSHA reform measures prior to the August recess, he refrained from doing so due to strong resistance from the business community. It is unclear at this point how and when Senator Enzi plans to proceed on the OSHA reform measures.
One of the bills Senator Enzi drafted contains a measure which I was asked to author for a masonry-industry-specific Training Exchange Program. This measure follows up on the testimony given by Roy Swindal before the HELP Committee on the merits of such a program. It is an idea that Senator Enzi and his staff strongly support because they understand that it could help reduce conflict and confrontation and resolve citations which are oftentimes given due to a misunderstanding over the application of a standard. Although it is my understanding that OSHA has agreed to initiate a pilot project of this sort through our Alliance and the St. Louis chapter will work with them to help implement it, I continue to believe it is a good idea to advance the legislation and address any possible enforcement concerns. There are also provisions for funding for the program as well as a provision to require OSHA to implement a masonry-specific curriculum at its Training Institute.
Work on the Silica Task Force proposal is still ongoing and we hope to put the finishing touches on a good working draft in the next two weeks. It is important that we complete that work for several reasons. First, we know that OSHA is on target to have its risk assessment completed by the end of the year. While that date may slip a little, we have some indication as to what the risk assessment points toward in terms of a PEL and it's not good AT ALL. So with that kind of information, there's little likelihood that OSHA will be left with ANY choice but to come out with a new standard, and, most likely, a new PEL. So as we have indicated all along, it is vital that we be in a position to push OSHA and NIOSH to use our document as the basis for any standard, particularly since we know it is both technologically and economically feasible. It is also in our best interest to put this issue to bed while we still have a favorable political climate. The window there is closing fairly quickly, so if we don't act, we will be taking an enormous risk on who will be in the White House in the next administration and what type of Congress we will have.
Second, we must give OSHA and NIOSH our document as further indication that we being proactive and working in good faith to resolve exposure concerns. More importantly, we need their help, particularly NIOSH's to collect additional data and to perform research on additional engineering controls. If we don't get more data with NIOSH's help, OSHA is likely to move forward with substantially incomplete information.
So again, I stress the need to continue moving forward so OSHA knows we are really serious about addressing the issue.
Should any of you have any questions about these topics, please don't hesitate to let me know.
About the Author
Marian J. Marshall was the Director of Government Affairs for the Mason Contractors Association of America.