updated 7/12/2005 7:23:47 PM ET 2005-07-12T23:23:47

The House on Tuesday passed four bills aimed at making it easier for small businesses to deal with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency often singled out by those trying to reduce government red tape.

The OSHA bills passed mainly with Republican support, while many Democrats argued that they could undermine the agency's ability to ensure worker safety.

Since capturing the House a decade ago, Republicans have been trying to rein in what they consider overzealous OSHA rule-making. Last year the House passed nearly identical bills, which the Senate, as it had done in the past, blocked from becoming law.

Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., who has led efforts to ease OSHA burdens, said his bills have a better chance this year because his former Georgia colleague in the House, GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson, now heads the Senate subcommittee responsible for the legislation.

Democrats sought to link the OSHA package with a proposal to raise the federal minimum wage, which has stood at $5.15 an hour since 1997, but the Republican majority declined to consider it.

Norwood contended that the changes were modest, giving small businesses more flexibility without reducing current levels of workforce protections. "Small employers ought to be devoting more of their time and attention to creating new jobs and less on dealing with government lawyers intent on manipulating legal technicalities," he said.

The four bills:

  • H.R. 739 would give small businesses the opportunity to seek exemptions from the 15-day deadline for challenging OSHA citations. Supporters said small companies can't afford to hire the full-time consultants needed to respond to citations. Opponents said the bill would make it more difficult for OSHA to deal with workplace violations in a timely fashion. It passed 256-164.
  • H.R. 740 expands the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission from three to five members, making it easier to reach the two-commissioner quorum needed to hear a case and reducing hearing backlogs. Opponents said it would allow the Bush administration to appoint people unfriendly to worker interests. It passed 234-185.
  • H.R. 741 overturns a 1991 Supreme Court decision by restoring the right of small businesses to appeal cases to an independent court. Opponents warned it would increase incentives to challenge the rules and interpretations of the Labor Secretary, who is responsible for OSHA enforcement. It passed 226-197.
  • H.R. 742 requires OSHA to pay court and attorney costs if a business owner can show charges to be frivolous. Opponents said it could discourage OSHA from citing safety and health violations. It passed 235-187.

"These bills begin the process of alleviating some of the regulatory cost burdens facing small businesses without sacrificing any safety or health protections," said National Association of Manufacturers President John Engler, the former governor of Michigan.

Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., said the package was "four opportunities to shut off democracy for the price of one."

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