09.23.10

Enzi: Workplace Safety Should Be Our Priority, Not Election Cycle Politics

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Ranking Member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, delivered the following remarks on the Senate floor today concerning bipartisan discussions on mine safety legislation. The text of the speech is below, or click to view the video:

Thank you, I want to thank the Senator from Iowa, Senator Harkin, for his kind words and his help and leadership on the HELP Committee. We have a big area we cover: health, education, labor and pensions. We have a lot of bills we're working on and people would be pleased in the bipartisan way we're able to work on them, his staff and my staff. Actually, the members of the committee are very engaged on the issues that we're covering, and they're very important issues for America. I came to the floor to talk about a little different issue than what we've been talking about but there is another issue for the health, education, labor, and pensions committee, and this doesn't come under that category of labor. It’s safety.

The reason I'm here on the floor is that I’ve seen some articles appearing in different parts of the United States that are inaccurate on what's happening on mine safety. I want to take a moment to clear up some of that -- clear up some of that confusion caused by a breakdown on the negotiations on the mine safety legislation. The terrible tragedy that occurred in West Virginia this past April focused us again on the mine safety laws and regulations. As a senator from the state that leads the nation in coal production -- we do 40% of all the nation's coal. My county accounts for most of that. We have 92 trains a day that leave our county. That’s over a million tons of coal a day.

I’ve always considered workplace safety as one of the most important missions. The first bill I did was on OSHA. I’ve been pleased to work across the aisle to improve safety. And that's exactly what I’ve tried do this year as well as with my colleague from West Virginia and members of the committee under the direction of Senator Harkin, who's been very helpful on this. As my colleagues well know, negotiations have been making significant progress. Until we ran into a stumbling block known as the election cycle. The staffs of seven senators have been meeting several times a week for over two months and all through the recess period agreements had been formed for over a dozen proposals. I think there were 14 we were on agreement on, 7 more we were waiting to see if there was agreement and maybe 5 or 6 that the Senators themselves had to work out. Several of those important ones are right on the brink of compromise or agreement when the talks were abruptly called off until after the election.

Despite what's been said in the press and on the floor, the simple fact is we might well have had an agreement by now if all of the people would have stayed at the table and decided that this didn't need to be an election issue. This very process of requesting unanimous consent on a bill, which could happen, would not even be on the bill that we've been working on. It would be on one that was introduced before this process came into being. And, everyone knows that that wouldn't have sufficient support to pass as part of political consult on the political calculations of my colleagues, but it seems to me that political theater and failing to work together to get important things like this done are exactly what the American people are so frustrated at this year. That’s what all the passion is about.

We’re serving this nation best when we accomplish the nation's business. The formula is not that complicated. You have to bring both sides together for discussion; you have to establish agreed-upon goals. You have to consult with stakeholders that will be affected by the changes being discussed. That’s anybody who's going to be affected much once substantial agreement has been reached, determine which issues decide we’ll never be able to agree upon, and set it aside for another day for debate. That is my 80/20 rules. There have been issues talked about so long that both sides are so polarized that you mention one word with that particular issue and everybody plunges into the weeds and do the same arguments they've always done without listening to what the other side is saying. I have found that you can work through those issues as well as you can get people back up to the service instead of in the weeds and figure out something that will allow both sides to save face. This formula has worked in the past for the very issue we're talking about today, which is mine safety.

In 2006 when I was Chairman of the HELP Committee, we were faced with a string of tragic mine accidents in West Virginia. In response to the first one, Senator Rockefeller and Senator Kennedy and I organized a trip to the Sago Mine in West Virginia to meet with the miners, the victims' families and the investigators. The three of us, along with Senators Isakson, Murray, and Byrd then began negotiations and we were able to come up with an agreement in less than two months. It was called the MINER Act, which was the first major revision of mine safety and health since 1977. It’s got to be some kind of a record around here, but it was really important and it was worked in a bipartisan way. And that was done through a recess period as well. Agreements had been formed on over a dozen important proposals, as I mentioned, and it could be real close to an agreement. It would be a different agreement that some -- than some of the ones that might be put forward and I’m hoping that they won't be put forward. The people will come back to the table, work through the time until elections are over, and get this finished up.

This bill made important improvements to the emergency preparedness of underground mines. This one for the Sago Mine and has fostered tremendous improvements particularly in communications technology in the adaptability in the underground environment. We’re talking about being able to talk through several hundred feet, in some cases, thousand feet of granite. Ever get a cellphone to work through a mountain or a building, you'll see what kind of problem they've got. But tremendous improvements have been made because there's a market for it, and mining's increasing, and the safety is essential and we made it part of that MINER Act. One of the reasons that I’m so proud of the MINER Act is that we wrote it in a way that legislation should be drafted. We brought in the stakeholders, the union, the nonunion people, the safety experts, we brought in the investigators. Now the Mine Safety and Health Administration and all of these people sat around a table and worked through the biggest safety concerns and the best way to approach them. Because the bipartisan nature of the bill, it sailed through a committee markup. It was passed by the Senate unanimously a week later. That’s as bipartisan as you can get. And it passed the House two weeks later and there were only 37 house members out of 435 opposing it. One more week later it was signed into law. Mr. President, that's how laws get done and really make a difference. During my tenure as a Chairman of the HELP Committee, we were able to move 27 bills to enactment that way. In total we reported 35 bills out of committee and of those 35, 25 passed the senate. We ran out of time on the others or we would have gotten those too. That is what Americans are demanding especially on an issue as timely as work life safety. Every day thousands of Americans go to work in the energy production industry. The work they do affects every single one of us.

This year major accidents in the energy producing sector have taken the lives of 29 men in west Virginia, six in Connecticut, seven in Washington state, three in Texas, and 11 off the coast of Louisiana. If there was ever a time to work together to actually enact legislation, as opposed to playing political theater, this should be it. It can be done. There is progress being made. My staff has not walked away from the table and I resent any articles that say that. I am impressed -- and in agreement with the agreements that had been made so far. I keep constant track of those. It shouldn't be -- it shouldn't take very long to finish the six or seven that are very close to being resolved. And then it shouldn't take very long for the members to sit down and resolve the ones that are left after that. So we can have a mine safety bill. We can't have it this week. I’m sure we can't have it next week. And the House has already done a mine safety bill, so we have to conference that. So it's going to take a little bit of time. Although the bill that we're working on, I think in the bipartisan way, could be done unanimously on this side and the house when we do it unanimously is very likely to follow very closely follow that suit and finish it up as well. And I think that's what the American people expect.

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