It’s been more than a year since the Labor Dept. had an assistant secretary in place to oversee the Occupational Safety and Health Administration but now there are signs of progress in filling the job. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a Jan. 31 confirmation hearing for President Bush’s nominee for the post, South Carolina labor lawyer Edwin G. Foulke Jr. Committee Chairman Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.) wants his panel to vote on Foulke in March. Industry and labor union officials are awaiting OSHA action on several construction issues.

Foulke, a former chairman of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, told Enzi’s panel that, if confirmed, he would continue OSHA’s outreach to employers and pledged “strong, fair and effective enforcement.” Foulke spoke mostly in similar generalities, saying that “injury, illness and fatality prevention will continue to be the top priority of OSHA.”

Enzi noted Foulke’s experience in workplace safety, including serving from 1990 to 1995 on the Occupational Safety and Health panel, with four years as chairman. “Much progress has been made” in workplace safety, “but we can continue to do better,” Enzi said. Foulke said his priorities at OSHA would include getting safety information to companies, especially small ones. Many small businesses don’t belong to associations that could help them have more effective compliance programs, he said.

The committee’s top Democrat, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, criticized OSHA. He said the workplace fatality rate has fallen 75% since the agency was launched in 1974, but it rose in 2004 for the first time in 10 years. The rate increased to 4.1 per 100,000 full-time employees, from 4.0 the year before, OSHA reports. Workplace fatalities also climbed 2% in 2004, to 5,703, though the total is down from 5,920 in 2000. Still, Kennedy doesn’t plan to put a hold on Foulke’s nomination, an aide says.

OSHA has several pending construction issues, says Justin Crandol, the Associated General Contractors’ senior director for safety and health services. They include a revised standard for crane and derrick operators. Pete Stafford, safety and health director for the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Dept. says, “An increase in well-targeted enforcement would certainly be a priority. We have to get to the smaller employers.” He says that in construction, 80% of employers have 10 or fewer employees.

Bush nominated Foulke for the top OSHA job last September, more than eight months after John Henshaw left the post. Foulke is a partner in the Greenville, S.C., office of the law firm Jackson Lewis LLP.

Spending: Senate Measure Seeks ‘Earmark’ Disclosure
A Senate proposal wants lawmakers to disclose more information about projects or other “earmarks” they insert in legislation. But the plan wouldn’t ban the earmarks themselves.

Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced a resolution Feb. 2 that would subject earmarks to a point of order if added to a conference report but not passed earlier by the House or Senate. A senator would need 60 votes to keep an earmark from being deleted. “This will ensure that earmarks are not added in the dead of night, with no scrutiny,” Feinstein said.

Lott and Feinstein also want conference reports to list earmarks’ sponsors. Bills would have to be available on the Internet 24 hours before floor debate starts.

House: Boehner Wins Majority Leader Post
House Republicans have picked Ohio’s John A. Boehner as their new majority leader, the chamber’s second-ranking GOP position. In a Feb. 2 election, Boehner, the Education and the Workforce Committee chairman, defeated Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, 122-109. Blunt has been acting majority leader since Tom DeLay (Texas) stepped down from the post.

It was a come-from-behind win for Boehner, a House member since 1991. In the first ballot, Blunt had 110 votes to Boehner's 79. John Shadegg (Ariz.) got 40 votes and Jim Ryun (Kan.) had two.

Shadegg and Ryun then dropped out. Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio) says he thinks that in the second ballot, most of those who backed Shadegg, along with some Blunt supporters, shifted to Boehner. Blunt will remain as the GOP’s majority whip.

Aviation: DOT Aims To Propose Finance Plan This Spring
The Dept. of Transportation will propose changing how the aviation trust fund is financed and Federal Aviation Administrator Marion Blakey says she’d like to issue a proposal in early spring. The fund pays for construction grants and other FAA programs. The finance proposal will be part of the debate over a new FAA bill. DOT Secretary Norman Mineta says general aviation will shoulder some costs. “I don’t think they expect a complete pass, nor are we going to tip the whole boatload on them,” he says.