But subcommittee members were largely skeptical that additional authority was needed, citing a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in which field audits found lax enforcement in some areas and repeated failures to properly review safety inspection documents. “The strongest laws on the books cannot protect miners if the agency charged with enforcing those laws fails to do so,” said Subcommittee Chairman Tim Walberg (R-Mich.).

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) agreed. “It seems the failure is not having (too few) tools in the toolbox but not having [enough] people using the tools,” said the chairman of the full Education and the Workforce Committee. In a letter to Main following the hearing, Kline asked MSHA to provide committee staff with documents explaining the agency’s audits and its plans to remedy problems identified by them.

Two California Democrats backed Main’s contention that existing authority is inadequate for controlling “rogue” operators. Rep. Lynn Woolsey said support for stronger safety measures is “a moral obligation to make sure our laws value and protect their lives.” Rep. George Miller asked rhetorically if Congress would “continue to empower rogue operators?”

Main said his agency’s investigation of the Upper Big Branch mine accident is several months from completion, but “we do know already explosions in mines are preventable.” He said the mismanagement disclosed by GAO was not widespread but localized and is being addressed.