03/01/2012 05:51 pm ET

Worker Safety Rule Languishes As Campaign Money Flows

WASHINGTON -- A federal rule meant to protect the lungs of workers has been caught in bureaucratic purgatory for more than a year now, frustrating public health advocates who believe the rulemaking process has been overly influenced by industry lobbies.

The so-called "silica" rule under consideration by the Labor Department would limit the amount of breathable silica dust to which workers in the construction and mining industries are exposed. Crystalline silica dust is found in sand and granite, and it has been known for decades to lead to the respiratory disease known as silicosis. Although the regulations would strengthen protections for workers, they're expected to raise costs for businesses that mine or build with materials involving silica.

The White House has had the rule under review since last February, even though the typical review period should be wrapped up in 90 days. As The Huffington Post previously reported, in the past year the White House's Office of Management and Budget has held nine closed-door meetings on the subject with interested parties, including trade groups from the construction, homebuilding and chemistry industries, as well as labor groups.

House Republicans, too, have weighed in on the discussion, sending the Labor Department a letter last summer noting that one estimate pegs the cost at "between $3-5 billion per year, if not higher" for businesses. The lawmakers, including House Education and Workforce Committee chairman Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), argued that the agency had "[failed] to determine the full scope of the proposal" it was considering.

According to campaign finance records, the seven Republicans who signed on to that letter have received roughly $70,000 in campaign donations this election cycle from trade groups who met with the White House over the silica rule. Kline and his leadership PAC alone have received more than $20,000 from some of those groups, including the Associated Builders and Contractors PAC, the National Roofing Contractors Association PAC, and the Associated General Contractors of America, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

House Education and Workforce Committee spokesman Brian Newell said in an email that small businesses are concerned with the costs of a new standard. Republicans would like to see the rule made public, he said, adding that the administration has "spent years working in secrecy on a new standard."

"The committee’s sole interest is to ensure a fair, transparent regulatory process that will develop responsible regulation, and nothing more," Newell wrote.

Thomas McGarity, an administrative law professor at the University of Texas Law School and a board member of the Center for Progressive Reform, said federal regulations such as the silica rule are increasingly getting bogged down in the rulemaking process as legislators and industry lobbies try to influence the final product. Safety rules often end up getting watered down in the process, he said.

"There is a problem with over-political influencing in rulemaking," McGarity aid. "This rule hasn’t even been proposed yet, and now it's in a legal netherworld."

"And [silica] really is a rule that needs to be written," McGarity continued. "The standard is obsolete. It's an obvious problem, and it's not something that anybody should have to tolerate and yet people do all the time."

The silica rule cannot be finalized until it undergoes a public-comment period, and that cannot happen until the White House completes its review, meaning that it is effectively stalled. The watchdog group Public Citizen estimates that the rule could have "prevented 60 worker deaths and 2,400 cases of silicosis" in the time it's been under review.

In January, more than 300 public health experts and labor officials sent a letter to the White House urging the rule's release, citing their "serious concern" with the rule's "extraordinary delay" and saying the closed-door meetings weren't transparent. The letter suggested the rule might be held up due to political concerns. The White House has told HuffPost that as a matter of policy, it does not comment on rules under review.

Brian Turmail, spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America, which met with the White House last year on the issue, said the trade group doesn't oppose the idea of stronger regulations on silica. It just wants to make sure the new standards are realistic.

"We support the idea of putting a silica rule in place to support our member firms' employees," Turmail said. "Our concerns have been that the proposed rule would set a standard we thought couldn't be met with existing technology."

Due to the concerns of several deep-pocketed industries, many experts believe the rule under consideration won't be made public until after the presidential election, when the political blowback would be minimized. Says Public Citizen's Justin Feldman, a worker safety advocate, "I wouldn’t expect anything to happen within the administration until Nov. 7."