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Education & Labor Committee Republicans

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Kline Statement: Full Committee Markup of H.R. 5663, the Miner Safety and Health Act

The explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine claimed the lives of 29 workers and forever changed the lives of their families and communities. While progress has been made over the last several decades to improve mine safety, tragedies like the one at the Upper Big Branch mine remind us more work remains. 

Republicans firmly believe Congress must take responsible action to further mitigate the dangers of underground mining and advance our shared goal of preventing such a tragedy from ever happening again. It is clear steps should be taken to modernize our laws, toughen penalties on bad actors, and guarantee the federal government is meeting its obligation to fully enforce the law. 

I appreciate the Chairman’s sense of urgency, but regrettably, I cannot support this legislation. Congress does not do well when sweeping reforms are written without a sincere effort to include bipartisan ideas, and expedited to meet the demands of a legislative agenda rather than create sound public policy. Yet that is precisely the circumstance in which this legislation was produced. 

The Democrats’ proposal is massive in both size and scope. Even the Congressional Budget Office has been unable to quantify the cost and consequences of this proposal because of its sheer magnitude and the repercussions that would flow to virtually every workplace in the nation. 

The sweeping nature of the legislation is all the more troubling when we consider that not a single investigation into the Upper Big Branch tragedy is complete. We do not know what caused this tragedy. We do not know which laws were not followed, which laws were not enforced, and which laws were simply inadequate. Without knowing the answers to those questions, it would be irresponsible to move forward with legislation this broad. 

The bill is riddled with legal traps and punitive measures – a benefit to trial lawyers, perhaps, but not beneficial in advancing mine safety. The bill threatens to criminalize what people “know” rather than their “willful” actions, those generally taken with a bad purpose, to intentionally violate the law. This potentially creates a disincentive for employers to proactively examine safety conditions and prevent accidents before they occur. 

And, perhaps most troubling, the broad changes to the OSH Act – changes wholly unrelated to miner safety – will drive up costs and litigation for job creators at a time our country can least afford it.

Workplace safety is an ongoing priority for this committee, and for our nation. OSHA reform is a worthwhile pursuit, but it is unfair and unreasonable to attach these radical changes to a bill that is being rushed through Congress in the wake of a mining tragedy. I urge my Democratic colleagues to strike this misplaced overhaul of the OSH Act so we can work together on commonsense reforms that will strengthen mining safety, period.  

These are a few of the concerns I and my Republican colleagues have with the Democrats’ legislation; no doubt additional concerns will be raised today. Despite our concerns, we realize the Majority is determined to move forward without all the facts. Given this timetable, Republicans have identified preliminary areas of reform we believe are important to improving miner safety. We will propose reforms on which we believe Republicans and Democrats can find common ground, while recognizing a better response to the Upper Big Branch tragedy would be to act when the causes are understood. What we will NOT do is bog down a package of targeted mine safety reforms with controversial and questionable changes to the OSH Act. 

With so many questions involving the Upper Big Branch mine disaster still unanswered, I will – perhaps for the first time ever – suggest we look to the Senate for guidance. With various state and federal investigations underway and their findings expected in the coming months, we simply do not have a complete picture of what went wrong in West Virginia. Our colleagues on the other side of the Capitol will not even introduce legislation until the fall, and I know at a minimum those on the Republican side share my belief that we should allow the investigations to be completed before legislating. Instead of acting hastily, our counterparts in the Senate are engaged in bipartisan negotiations to identify shared concerns and allow data to guide their work. 

A little more time is something I think we could all use here in this committee. In fact, the majority did not circulate the final amendment in the nature of a substitute – the actual legislative text to be amended and voted upon today – until approximately 10:30 last night. The revised text contained two substantive policy changes. Whether such changes have merit or not, their circulation just under 12 hours before the committee was set to meet for a vote indicates this bill is simply not ready to advance. 

I have no doubt there are areas of common ground to improve miner safety, if my Democratic colleagues would take the time to legislate responsibly; set aside their plans for a vast and unrelated expansion of the federal government; and put the safety of miners first. 

Every day miners work under dangerous conditions to deliver the energy resources countless families and businesses rely upon. As we work toward responsible legislation to protect these workers, we should strive to get it right, not simply get it done quickly. 

It is my hope we will join some of the legislative ideas discussed today with the eventual findings of the investigations underway to enact a law with a clearer focus on making mining safer. Our charge is not only to act, but to take action that will best protect miners. The legislation before this committee fails to do so and I urge my colleagues to reject it. 

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