WASHINGTON -- Bankruptcy and ergonomics were not topics George W. Bush talked about when he was running for president, so it is not surprising that few if any voters gave much thought to those matters when deciding how to mark their ballots last November. But elections have consequences, even for issues that go undiscussed in the campaign. And it turns out that millions of Americans will find their lives changed because Bush's views on bankruptcy and ergonomics are radically different from those of his predecessor, Bill Clinton, and his opponent, Al Gore.
In his final month in the White House, Clinton vetoed a bill that would have made it harder for many Americans to clear up their debts by filing for bankruptcy. And just four days before his tenure came to a close, he allowed sweeping Labor Department regulations to go into effect, requiring employers to deal more promptly and fully with workplace conditions that contribute to strained backs, stiff wrists, cramped hands and all the other symptoms of repetitive motion distress. Gore supported both policies and would have continued them, had he succeeded Clinton.
But last week, the Republican Congress, acting with the approval and encouragement of the Bush White House, moved to reverse directions in both areas. Invoking a procedure never used before, the House and the Senate sent Bush a resolution that simply wipes out the ergonomics regulations that went into effect Jan. 16. And the Senate moved toward final approval of the same bankruptcy bill that Clinton had vetoed but Bush is eager to sign.
The clear winners in both fights are the business interests that supported Bush and lobbied hard for these actions. Banks and credit card companies have been pressing for the bankruptcy law changes for five years, eager to stem their losses from people who accept the "easy credit" these same companies market with 3 billion solicitations a year, and then get in over their heads.
The ergonomics battle drew a broad coalition of business groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. They argue that the regulations would be costly to satisfy and might expose them to a new wave of lawsuits.
The losers are the same groups that supported Gore over Bush, notably organized labor, consumer organizations, advocates for women's and children's causes. Their spokesmen were the iconic liberals, Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, Paul Wellstone and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Fights like these expose the true economic and social differences between the parties. Calls for civility and bipartisanship may fill the air, but when regulatory issues affecting business, workers and consumers are at stake, Republicans and Democrats heed different constituencies.
What is striking is how little the broad public learns of these battles or influences their outcome. The ergonomics regulations were rolled back on successive days last week, with little advance notice and only a few hours of debate in the House and Senate. The bankruptcy bill has rarely made TV news shows or newspaper front pages.
And yet millions of people will be affected. Bankruptcy filings have climbed to 1.4 million a year. Estimates are that 1.8 million people a year suffer some form of repetitive motion distress--almost two-thirds of them women, entering data into computers all day long, changing bed linens in hotels or slicing chickens at food processing plants.
Critics of the Labor Department regulations made a persuasive case that they were formulated with too little regard for their cost and complexity, their impact on state and local governments and their possible conflicts with current workers' compensation laws. But were it not for the business lobbying pressure, these defects could have been fixed, rather than having the whole thing wiped off the books.
The reality is that companies that have addressed the ergonomics problem have cut down injuries and absenteeism, improved their output and saved money. Mandating similar practices in recalcitrant firms could benefit not just the workers but the whole economy.
As for the bankruptcy bill, it deserves the veto Clinton gave it. Despite some useful provisions, it is an unbalanced measure, which does nothing to curb the mass marketing of credit cards to young and low-income people who perpetually pay the exorbitant interest on their monthly balances. It will squeeze money out of people who have been clobbered by job losses, divorce or medical disasters, yet allow some millionaires to plead bankruptcy while turning their assets into mansions in states with unlimited homestead exemptions.
In both cases, money interests prevailed over the public interest.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.