WASHINGTON -- Facing political pressure from Republicans and farming groups, the White House has decided to scrap rules proposed last year that would have prevented minors from performing certain agricultural work deemed too dangerous for children.
The Labor Department announced the decision late Thursday, saying it was withdrawing the rules due to concern from the public over how they could affect family farms. "The Obama administration is firmly committed to promoting family farmers and respecting the rural way of life, especially the role that parents and other family members play in passing those traditions down through the generations," the department said in a statement.
While the move is destined to please the many conservatives and agricultural groups who came out in opposition to the rules, it was quickly criticized by workplace and child safety advocates who say the White House is caving to anti-regulatory politics.
"It's very discouraging. I didn't see this happening this way," says Mary Miller, a clinical professor at the University of Washington School of Nursing and a proponent of the rules. "Anyone who's anti-regulation, this was an easy thing to latch on to."
Although family farms were actually exempted from the proposed rules, many opponents cast them as an assault on family farms and rural traditions, saying the White House wanted to keep children from doing even small chores. In fact, the rules would only have affected minors who were formally employed and on farm payrolls, preventing them from operating heavy machinery, handling tobacco crops, working in grain silos or performing other jobs considered potentially dangerous.
Agricultural groups, including many farm bureaus, said they were worried that the restrictions would discourage youths from getting into the farming business. The American Farm Bureau Federation praised the White House's decision Thursday as a "victory for farm families."
"This announcement shows the strength of American agriculture and grassroots action," the group said.
Many politicians from rural states had lambasted the proposals as federal overreach that would hurt small farms. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), himself a rancher who's running for Senate, vowed to block the rules by withholding funding via House legislation. An Arkansas Republican running for Congress has made the rules a central campaign issue, saying the federal government needed to stay out of farmers' business.
Even former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin waded into the issue, posting a screed -- titled "If I Want America To Fail, I'd Ban Kids From Farm Work" -- on her Facebook page this week that claimed the rules' backers had grossly mischaracterized what they would actually do.
"The Obama Administration is working on regulations that would prevent children from working on our own family farms," the post read. "This is more overreach of the federal government with many negative consequences. And if you think the government’s new regs will stop at family farms, think again."
Although the rules would not actually have banned minors from doing family farm work -- in fact, they could have done even the work deemed potentially dangerous on family farms, due to a parental exemption -- backers of the proposals said the misinformation was difficult to overcome.
The White House may have sensed ahead of time the political dust-up the proposals would have caused. The White House's regulatory review office sat on the proposals for nine months before opening them up to public comment. Such a review is typically supposed to be concluded within three months. The White House released the rules after pressure from safety advocates.
Norma Flores Lopez, a child farm workers' advocate at the nonprofit Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, told The Huffington Post that the rules were "common sense" and would have helped protect children who work as migrants, not because of tradition but because their families need money.
"We felt that these were commonsense protections that maintained the traditions of family farms and would have saved many kids' lives. We're sad about it," said Lopez, who herself was a migrant worker as a child. "All the misinformation being put out there was really misrepresenting what these rules were. The benefits were overshadowed. The ones who will be paying for that is kids."