Is McCain the Safe Choice for President?

Experience vs. youth is one way to view the contest between John McCain and Barack Obama, and how they differ becomes clear when weighing these two presidential contenders' views and potential impact on workplace safety and health. Both are drifting closer to centrist stances in the final months of the race Very few votes or sponsored bills exist to tell us where Obama stands on safety, health, and environmental issues, but this is not true of McCain, who was first elected to the Senate in 1986. His label as a "maverick" Republican is accurate.

Environmental Champion
McCain has said his co-sponsorship of a bill enacted in 1990 to set aside 1.4 million acres of Arizona desert wilderness is among his proudest achievements as a legislator. That same year, well before the issue of climate change became politically popular, McCain voted to adopt the Clean Air Act Amendments (PL 101-549), which also authorized the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

He has a solid record on conservation and environmental stewardship. He introduced the Climate Stewardship Act of 2003 (S. 139), the Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act of 2005 (S. 1151), and the same-named act of 2007 (S. 280), which Obama co-sponsored. In 2004, McCain signed a bipartisan senators' letter urging then-EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt to take "prompt and effective action to clean up mercury pollution from power plants" and noting that EPA's proposals on mercury emissions at that time "fall far short of what the law requires, and they fail to protect the health of our children and our environment." In 2005, he voted for a Senate resolution (SJR 20) that would have overturned an EPA rule exempting coal-fired power plants from strict air toxic control provisions of the Clean Air Act.

Workplace Safety
Although McCain has not outlined his specific OSHA policies, his votes show he generally opposes government spending increases. He voted to repeal OSHA's ergonomics standard in 2001, a few months after it was promulgated near the end of President Clinton's administration. At the time, McCain called the standard unwieldy and unnecessarily burdensome to business.

He now opposes S. 1244, the Protecting America's Workers Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Edward Kennedy in April 2007 and co-sponsored by Obama. This bill would significantly rewrite the OSH Act of 1970 by expanding its coverage to include public employees. It would raise civil penalties for fatal incidents to a maximum of $250,000 and allow employers to be sent to prison for some violations that result in workers' deaths. The bill would allow a worker hurt in an incident that OSHA investigates to make or a family member of that worker to make a statement to the parties before the Labor Department could withdraw or modify a contested OSHA penalty. And it would increase safety whistleblowers' protections by requiring the secretary of Labor to investigate, hold a hearing, and order reinstatement and compensatory damages if the whistleblower was discharged or disciplined.

McCain also opposes the "card check bill," S. 1041 -- another bill that Obama has co-sponsored and has promised his administration will enact into law. This is organized labor's bill to make unionizing workplaces easier, and it is hotly opposed by employer groups.

In 2006, McCain fully supported the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (S. 2803), which MSHA calls "the most significant mine safety legislation in 30 years" because of its provisions to improve safety and health of underground coal miners. This law requires operators of underground coal mines to improve accident preparedness, develop an emergency response plan specific to each mine they operate, and ensure that each mine has at least two rescue teams located within one hour's travel time. McCain has been an advocate for first responders throughout his elected career. In March 2007, he introduced the Spectrum Availability for Emergency Response and Law Enforcement to Improve Vital Emergency Services Act (S. 744), also known as the SAVE LIVES Act, a bill that would direct FCC to provide more radio spectrum for public safety organizations' use and also establish a Public Safety Interoperable Communications Working Group to write standards for safety spectrum needs.

"With all the technological advances of recent years, why is it that those on whom we depend when disasters strike are still unable to communicate with each other during an emergency, while we are able to watch the crisis unfold on our televisions?" McCain asked in a speech delivered after he introduced S. 744. "It's because public officials have yet to get serious about developing and funding a safety communications system for all local, state, and federal first responders. The federal government spends too much money on too many things of dubious if any utility. It's time to put first the needs of the people who put the rest of us first."

McCain sponsored the U.S. Fire Administration Reauthorization Act (PL 108-169) that authorized funding for the U.S. Fire Administration, removed it from FEMA, and funded the National Fire Academy through 2008. In addition, the law requires USFA to develop new measurements to evaluate firefighting technologies and the compatibility of new and existing equipment while also requiring the development of a credentialing system for the deployment of emergency response personnel in the event of a national emergency. He also backed increased funding for the Firefighter Investment and Response Enhancement (FIRE) Act and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Act grant programs. The FIRE Act grants have provided almost a billion dollars to help fire departments purchase equipment. The SAFER Act has provided funds to fire departments for the purpose of increasing the number of firefighters available for daily duty.

Big Differences on Health Care
Ever a proponent of free enterprise, McCain is advancing a health care plan that supports a free-market, consumer-based system. This may be the issue on which he and Obama most diverge, at this point in their campaigns.

While both candidates clearly see a need for health care reform, their proposed remedies differ in significant ways. Obama proposes (almost) universal health care and mandatory health insurance for children -- the latter paid for by rolling back George W. Bush's tax cuts for households earning more than $250,000 -- and the creation of a National Health Insurance Exchange to assist people who want to purchase a private insurance plan. This is fundamentally at odds with McCain's plan, which essentially (and, some say, idealistically) advocates affordable health care for every American without any sort of mandate while allowing U.S. companies to compete effectively around the world. McCain says he wants to make insurance more portable, ensuring it follows workers from job to job, and to expand the benefits of Health Savings Accounts while allowing people to have the option of employer-based coverage. He has proposed a direct refundable tax credit of $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families to offset the cost of insurance and allowing families to choose the insurance provider that suits them best. Unlike Obama, McCain supports allowing individuals to join association health plans.

No Comment on Combustible Dust, Diacetyl Bills
The two candidates have not taken positions on several current health and safety issues:

• The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (H.R. 493), which prohibits improper use of genetic information in health insurance and employment, passed the Senate 95-0 on April 24 and was signed into law May 21, but neither McCain nor Obama voted on it. McCain's press office declined to comment about it.

• The Josh Miller HEARTS (Helping Everyone Access Responsive Treatment in Schools) Act (H.R. 4926), which would create a federal grant program to place AEDs in schools and train staffers to use them, awaits action in the Senate. So do two bills that would force OSHA to issue new standards: the Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires Act of 2008 (H.R. 5522) and the Popcorn Workers Lung Disease Prevention Act (H.R. 2693). Here, too, McCain's press office declined to comment on how or whether he would vote on these two bills.

The Deciding Issue? Don't Count on It
Which of these two candidates would be a better champion for American workers? It's too easy to choose the Democrats, who are expected to support a more active OSHA. What if John Zogby, of the online polling and marketing research firm Zogby International, is right, and the Red State vs. Blue State paradigm proves passé this year? What if the economy or global warming or Iran or health care or gas prices, or some other issue, dictates the outcome on Nov. 4?

These will trump the issue of worker safety, of course, if past elections are any guide.

This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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