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about the ability of states to administer workers’ compensation were the two representing organized labor.

It is tempting to view the Commission’s composition as evidence that national policy makers were not serious about comprehensive reform. Why else would they ask the foxes to inspect the hen house? Nevertheless, an equally plausible explanation is that by 1970, workers’ compensation had developed into such a specialized field of knowledge, and state laws varied on so many dimensions, that well-established experts in the field were about the only ones capable of conducting a systematic analysis. National officials well-versed in workers’ compensation laws may have been prominent in Roosevelt’s Committee on Economic Security, and even in the Social Security Board of the late 1930s and 1940s, but their numbers dwindled over time. This less conspiratorial view points to the importance of information and learning effects in reinforcing the path taken by a given program or policy (Pierson 2000).

Three years after the Commission’s report, states were nowhere near complying with all 19 essential elements. Congress did nothing. Six years after the report, same story. Ten years after, no change. Bills calling for national standards were introduced in the late 1970s in the House and Senate, by Democrats and Republicans. Each time, opponents successfully pointed to recent progress in the states and asked for more time. States did, in fact, make significant improvements to their workers’ compensation programs in the wake of the Commission’s report. Starting with compliance on an average of 6.9 out of 19 elements in 1972, states improved to 9.4 elements by 1975 and 12.1 by 1980. More workers were covered; benefits were considerably higher, and in many cases indexed to inflation for the first time. The glass may be half-full, supporters argued, but it was filling up.

The threat of national action was real but limited in duration. As stakeholders in workers’ compensation looked around in the early 1970s, they saw a new Black Lung program, serious discussion of national health insurance and welfare reform, and the nationalization of several means-tested programs (combined into Supplemental Security Income). They saw how a sympathetic audience of Commission members could produce an unflattering portrait of workers’ compensation. They moved quickly to demonstrate some progress. Once the threat had passed, the rate of improvement abruptly stopped: the compliance score was 12.1 in 1980 and 12.2 in 1988. By then, most policy makers in Washington had already reverted back to their old patterns of working around the edges of state compensation laws. The main issue during the 1980s was whether the national government should do more to help victims of occupational diseases, especially those related to asbestos. The window for substantial national involvement in workers’ compensation, never large to begin with, had closed.


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