WASHINGTON -- In a speech expounding on the rift between rural America and Washington D.C., Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) vowed Thursday to use his funding powers to stop the Obama administration from implementing new child-labor rules pertaining to agricultural work, accusing the "urban" Labor Department of meddling in a "rural" industry it doesn't understand.
"This is one of those situations where I think the Department of Labor is overstepping its boundaries, its knowledge base, and frankly I think you're sitting around watching reruns of "Blazing Saddles" and that's your interpretation of what goes on in the West," Rehberg, who holds the Labor Department's purse strings for the House of Representatives, said as he lectured a labor official during a hearing Thursday. "And it's not anymore."
Last year, the Labor Department proposed new rules governing what kinds of potentially dangerous tasks minors can and cannot perform on farms and in grain facilities. Although child and worker advocates said the new rules were long overdue, the proposals created an uproar among farmers and agricultural trade groups, who argued that the rules could hurt family-farming traditions.
Although the original proposals largely exempted family farms, the Labor Department bowed yesterday to the farming industry, further widening the exemptions it had already put forward. But that didn't stop Rehberg and GOP members of the House agriculture subcommittee from piling on the department Thursday, using the hearing as an opportunity to put forth their rural bona fides.
Rehberg, a six-term congressman who's running to unseat Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), said he's a fifth-generation Montana rancher whose great grandfather, born in 1873, started breaking horses at age 11. Rehberg said he has "taken all the glamour" out of his ranching operation. "I don't rope and I don't tie and I don't brand with a hot iron," he went on, adding that he uses modern equipment that he said is virtually incapable of hurting children.
"You can't get hurt," Rehberg fumed. "It's impossible. You could have a five-year-old out there running it."
Rehberg added that he's previously employed a 10-year-old neighbor to herd cashmere goats with what he described as a Kawasaki youth motorcycle. "Now would that be exempt under this rule?" Rehberg demanded of Nancy J. Leppink, a deputy administrator in the Labor Department.
But neither Leppink nor Rehberg seemed entirely sure where motorcycle goat-herding would fall under the new rules.
"I've come to the conclusion in my 11 years in Congress that it isn't necessarily a difference in philosophy between Republicans and Democrats -- there's a difference in philosophy between urban and rural," Rehberg said. "I can assure you, as chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on labor, that you haven't seen the last of this. I will have a rider on my appropriations bill that I write for the House of Representatives that will keep you from implementing this rule."
This isn't the first time Rehberg has used his chairman's perch to take aim at workplace regulations. The budget Rehberg proposed in September would have scuttled several safety protections put forth by the Labor Department, including a rule designed to prevent construction workers from falling from rooftops and another rule meant to reduce repetitive-motion injuries.