Yesterday, after the summer's spate of high-profile toy recalls, the Senate Commerce committee passed the most significant legislation affecting CPSC since the agency was created more than thirty years ago. Sponsored by Senator Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas), the bill increases CPSC's budget from $63 million to $142.7 million by 2015, and raises the cap on civil penalties the agency can levy against companies that hide product defects, from $1.8 million to $100 million. The bill gives CPSC a couple of new responsibilities—the agency will credential independent third-party testing labs whose job it will be to safety-test toys, and it will have the authority to investigate and respond to safety-related whistleblower complaints made by company employees.
Acting CPSC chairman Nancy Nord opposes the bill. Voicing her objections in a five-page letter to the committee, Nord argued that CPSC would be overwhelmed by its new responsibilities, and that many of the bill's provisions would do little more than increase litigation. Nord doesn't think CPSC should be in charge of credentialing testing labs, she wants nothing to do with whistleblower complaints, and, using a bizarre logic that apparently makes sense to her (and to industry), concludes that increasing the civil penalty cap to $100 million will make it more likely that truly dangerous products will not reach CPSC's radar screen. Overall, Nord said, the bill would have the "unintended consequence of hampering, rather than furthering consumer product safety."
Most of Nord's complaints are identical to those voiced by industry trade groups, chief among them, the National Association of Manufacturers, whose chief lobbyist, Michael Baroody, President Bush had nominated to fill Nord's job a year earlier. (Baroody withdrew his nomination before this Senate confirmation hearings). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) has called on Nord to resign. That the agency needs more resources and authority is clear, Pelosi said; the problem is that Nord simply does not understand "the gravity of the situation."
Today Nord issued a statement saying she has no intention of stepping down.
Consumer groups, who have been pushing for many of the bill's provisions for decades, were jubilant after the Commerce committee vote. "This bill is the most comprehensive product safety bill to have emerged from any House of Congress in decades," said Rachel Weintraub, general counsel for the Consumer Federation of America. "It makes giant strides forward in solving problems that have been plaguing CPSC for years."
The full Senate is expected to vote on the bill by Christmas. I write about the CPSC's history of mishandling toy safety regulation in the current issue of Mother Jones. Read it here.
—E. Marla Felcher