The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

White House Leaves Consumer Safety Agency Hobbled

by Michelle Chen

Feb. 21, 2007 – The nation’s primary consumer-protection agency is restricted, for now, from conducting its official business.

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The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has been operating without the ability to vote for weeks because President Bush has not moved to fill a key vacancy. The federal agency – headed by presidential appointees – establishes safety rules for more than 15,000 types of commercial products within its jurisdiction, from toys to bicycle helmets. It also negotiates product recalls with manufacturers and penalizes companies that violate standards.

Under the Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972, the agency needs at least three commissioners to make major decisions. If a vacancy brings the agency down to two commissioners, they may continue to vote for up to six months.

The agency has been operating with two commissioners since former Chair Harold Stratton left last July for a Detroit-based law firm, where he counsels companies on consumer-safety liability. The Commission’s voting authority expired January 15.

While the Commission can continue to conduct manufacturer recalls, it has been essentially blocked from voting to finalize rules or to proceed to the next round of ongoing rulemakings. As a stopgap measure, the remaining commissioners have shifted some authorities to other staff in order to continue certain duties, which include negotiating and settling cases against corporations. A vote would still be required to actually compel companies to pay up, though.

Consumer advocates are alarmed about the immediate impacts of the agency's loss of voting power, as well as what they say it indicates about the administration’s regulatory priorities.

Issues now pending before the Commission include decisions on safeguards for all-terrain vehicles, flammable carpets and rugs, and children’s jewelry containing lead.

Senator Mark Pryor (D–Arkansas) has introduced legislation that would temporarily restore the CPSC’s voting ability for six months. Yet consumer advocates are alarmed about the immediate impacts of the voting limbo, as well as what they say it indicates about the administration’s regulatory priorities.

"Pretty much every minute of a person’s day, they are surrounded by a product that CPSC has jurisdiction over," noted Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety with the Consumer Federation of America. She said that unlike safety recalls, which react to existing hazards, rulemakings "could preempt the harm before it occurs."

Aside from losing voting power by default, the agency faces a budget squeeze. Compared to the pending 2007 funding level, the president’s 2008 budget request would reduce its staffing by the equivalent of 19 full-time employees.

Former Commissioner Stratton said the CPSC’s leadership vacuum could be a setback for both regulators and regulated firms. "What industry wants is some definiteness in what's going to happen," he told The NewStandard. "But if we don't know [how the agency will act], how do we know how to prepare?"

CPSC Public Affairs Director Julie Vallese told TNS that currently, the agency’s day-to-day investigative work would proceed, and no rulemaking process had yet neared the voting stage.

"Industry isn’t off the hook," she said. "The rules and laws of the CPSC can and will still be enforced."

But Matt Madia, an analyst with regulatory-policy research group OMB Watch, warned that industry enjoys relief as long as regulators are slowed by procedural roadblocks. Madia argued that "the kind of things the commissioners have to do come up quickly and have to be resolved quickly." He called the lapse of voting power "an underhanded attempt to delay regulation."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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