Conservative pundits and activists are taking aim at President Obama's pick to head the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for his writings about the dangers of various pollutants and hazardous materials.
Obama nominated David Michaels, an epidemiologist and former Energy Department official, to direct the Labor Department agency that enforces workplace safety and health legislation. The nomination came in late July, but a date has not yet been set for a confirmation hearing as the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has been focused almost exclusively on health care legislation.
Some on the right are trying to use the delay to spark opposition against Michaels, calling him a proponent of junk science, anti-business and anti-guns.
Hans Bader, a legal scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market advocacy group, said several of Michaels' views on issues could directly impact the agency that enforces workplace safety and health legislation.
"I can see why there would be concern," Bader said. "He seems to want to loosen restrictions on junk science ... it seems reasonable for senators to take a closer look at his nomination."
Of particular concern to Bader are some of Michaels' writings, including a 2008 book he wrote called "Doubt is Their Product," in which he describes how some corporations skew the scientific debate about the dangers of various pollutants and hazardous materials. In it, Michaels documents cases in which corporations -- such as the tobacco industry -- hire their own scientists and lobbyists to dispute scientific evidence about public health threats.
Bader points to one chapter in which Michaels discusses a 1993 Supreme Court ruling, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc., which set the standard for admitting expert testimony in federal courts. Bader said Michaels' views on that case suggest he supports relying on "junk science," which could dramatically alter OSHA's approach to ensuring workplace safety.
In an editorial earlier this month, the Washington Times called Michaels "one the nation's foremost proponents of allowing junk science to be used in jackpot-justice lawsuits."
But Michaels' supporters dispute that idea.
"Our assessment of him he is that he's certainly well-qualified for the position, and his major strength is as public health expert in an agency that's supposed to be focused on protecting workers and making the workplace safe," said Rick Melberth, director of regulatory policy for OMB Watch, a nonpartisan watchdog group. "His book is an excellent assessment, I thought, of that kind of approach that some corporations have used to put profits ahead of public health."
Added Francesa Grifo, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists: "I think the idea of having a scientist who is an epidemiologist writing and thinking about these issues is a great step forward in any context."
Another issue that conservatives are rallying around is Michaels' views on gun control -- he has written about the need for legislation that prevents gun violence, which many bloggers have taken to mean that Michaels could push to restrict the storage or possession of guns in workplaces.
"He [Michaels] regards guns as a public health menace, as a disease," Bader said. "Once you accept the idea that it's public health menace rather than who has access, it becomes a much quicker route to banning guns in the workplace."
This point of view from the head of OSHA could lead to detrimental public safety implications, Bader said, because many business owners feel safer if they can protect themselves against armed criminals, who are not subject to federal or workplace review.
Hank Cox, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers, said his group would be sending HELP Committee members a letter urging them to hold a public hearing to discuss his background.
"We're not opposed to his nomination, but ... some of the things he's said gives us concern that he might have an adversarial attitude toward manufacturers," Cox said. "We think it's really important that the senators hold a hearing and talk to him to give him a fair chance to explain his views."
New HELP Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and committee ranking member Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.) did not return calls for comment.
The next Van Jones?
Michaels' nomination comes as conservatives are increasing pressure on Obama administration officials, most notably the "czars" -- executive branch officials who do not require Senate approval, such as Van Jones.
"Like Obama's other 'czars' and appointees, Michaels' brand of radicalism extends beyond his area of expertise," wrote Ken Blackwell on the RedState.com blog. "Compared to Michaels, Mr. Van Jones is Mr. Dick Van Dyke."
Jones resigned over the Labor Day weekend as President Obama's special adviser for "green jobs, enterprise and innovation," after reports linked him to efforts several years ago suggesting a U.S. government role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. His downfall began after FOX News Channel host Glenn Beck began speaking out against Jones on his radio show and cable news program.
Some see the recent attacks on Michaels as an extension of the campaign to drive out Jones -- on his program immediately following the Jones' fallout, Beck wrote on his Web site: "I continue to be amazed by the power of everyday Americans to initiate change in our government through honest questioning. And judging by the other radicals in this administration, I expect that questioning to continue for the foreseeable future."
But OMB Watch's Melberth said it was unfair to link Jones and Michaels, as well as another Obama nominee, Cass Sunstein, who also felt political heat as Obama's pick to run OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and whose nomination was delayed in the Senate by three months this summer over concerns about his positions on animal welfare and the Second Amendment. The Senate confirmed Sunstein on Sept. 10.
"To put Van Jones and Cass Sunstein and David Michaels all in the same camp is unfair and inaccurate," Melberth said. "Because the attacks on Van Jones worked, they're trying the same strategy for everybody. But everybody's not in the same situation, and they're drawing no distinctions here."
"[Michaels] does not strike me as some radical person who's going to upset the state of the world with his positions," Melberth added. "This gets to the right-wing attacks -- it feels like everything with regard to these nominations has just gone to the extreme. If someone disagrees with a nominee, they have to do so vehemently so there's no middle ground and you can't talk to each other."
Bader agrees with Melberth on one issue -- he said he thought Sunstein should be confirmed. "I thought Sunstein had the competence and the relevant skills for his post even though in my ideal world I wouldn't have chosen someone so liberal," he said. The difference with Michaels, he said, is that the latter is "outside the mainstream" for his ideas.
Currently a professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, Michaels served from 1998 to 2001 as assistant secretary of the Energy Department for environment, safety and health. At DOE, he designed a landmark program for compensating nuclear-weapons workers who developed illnesses after exposure to radiation, beryllium and other toxic materials. The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program has provided more than $4.5 billion to sick workers and their families.
Michaels has also done extensive studies on the health effects resulting from occupational exposure to toxic chemicals, including asbestos, metals and solvents, and written numerous articles on science and regulatory policy.
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.