WASHINGTON — Bowing to congressional pressure, the Obama administration is assuring Congress and farmers it doesn't want to regulate the country's smallest farms.
In a letter to Congress dated Feb. 10, a top official with the U.S. Department of Labor wrote to assure members that the agency has no interest in inspecting small farming operations with fewer than 10 employees. The letter also said the agency is formally withdrawing a contentious 2011 OSHA memorandum that many members of Congress, including South Dakota's congressional delegation, said opened the door to regulating small, family-run farm operations.
Congress has expressly forbidden the Occupation Safety and Health Administration from regulating small farms since 1976. The Department of Labor, which oversees OSHA, has said that the memorandum was never intended to change that practice.
But the letter from Brian V. Kennedy, an assistant secretary at the Department of Labor, makes clear that the agency felt the need to clarify its policies. It came after months of congressional pressure on the issue.
"The June 28, 2011 memorandum was intended to provide clarification and not to change OSHA's longstanding policies and proper authority," wrote Brian V. Kennedy, the assistant secretary for congressional and intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Labor.
Rep. Kristi Noem, who was among a group of lawmakers pressing for action on the issue, said the response was sufficient and that withdrawing the memo would provide clarity and prevent confusion.
"Without (doing) it, family farms that already have a strong personal interest in keeping their operations safe could have had to deal with costly and unnecessary OSHA investigations of their private bins," the South Dakota Republican said.
Kennedy wrote that the 2011 memorandum was an attempt to address a rash of grain bin deaths and never intended to change the agency's policy. Withdrawing the memorandum was the easiest way to avoid confusion and officials from OSHA and the Department of Labor are already working with the Department of Agriculture on crafting agreeable language, he wrote.
Kennedy's letter came after lawmakers pressed the Department of Labor for clarification on the issue and warned that they would not accept changes to long-standing practices for family farms without congressional action. In letters from a group of U.S. senators and two separate letters from members of the House, lawmakers said any attempt to regulate family farms would violate the law and Congress' intent.
Noem said that everyone wanted safe farms, but that OSHA's memo could have been misinterpreted in a way that was never Congress' intent.
"OSHA simply tried to circumvent a law that's been on the books since the 1970's," she said. "I'm proud to have helped in keeping OSHA in check."
Kennedy's letter was addressed to the House Education and Workforce Committee, which had written the Department of Labor seeking clarification.