In an attempt to rectify problems and ensure the safety of our children, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation voted yesterday to approve a bill which would overhaul federal standards on consumer products, and includes vital whistle-blower provisions to protect employees who report consumer safety violations. Yet notwithstanding the widely reported recalls of children’s products and the real risks posed to consumers, the top U.S. official for consumer product safety, Nancy A. Nord, the acting chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), had asked Congress in recent days to reject the legislation.
Thus far this year, the CPSC has negotiated at least 43 recalls of children’s products – from toys to school supplies to jewelry – containing lead, according to CPSC recall announcements. Those 43 recalls have involved approximately 10.8 million products, 84 percent of which were manufactured in China. In the last two months alone, more than 13 million toys have been recalled after tests indicated lead levels of almost 200 times the safety ceiling.
Ms. Nord opposes provisions that would increase the maximum penalties for safety violations and make it easier for the government to make public reports of faulty products, protect industry whistle-blowers and prosecute executives of companies that willfully violate laws. Some of Ms. Nord’s complaints were similar to the ones that business groups and manufacturers have raised, including that the legislation would be unnecessarily burdensome. But in other areas, such as whistle-blower protection for company employees, her complaints went beyond those of industry. Fortunately through yesterday’s vote, Ms. Nord’s objections were overruled.
Under the proposed law, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers would be prohibited from retaliating against employees who report violations of consumer safety laws. Whistleblowers who experience retaliation will have the right to file a complaint in administrative court, and then to appeal that decision in Federal Court, with access to jury trials. The proposed law would more than double the agency’s budget, to $141 million, over the next seven years, raise staffing levels by about 20 percent, and give the commission broad new powers to police the marketplace. It would raise the cap on the maximum penalties, to $100 million, from $1.8 million.
The CPSC has borne much of the brunt for the regulatory failures. The measure is an effort to buttress an agency that has been under siege because of a raft of tainted and dangerous products manufactured both domestically and abroad. CPSC’s eroding resources have been cited as a reason for the agency’s inability to properly ensure product safety.
The agency’s budget and staffing is half of what it was in the 1970s when accounting for inflation. CPSC’s staff, once near 1,000, is now 420. The agency is down to just one full-time toy tester, meaning companies must police themselves. And 15 inspectors are assigned to police all foreign imports of consumer products under the agency’s supervision, a marketplace that last year was valued at $614 billion.
“The American people truly believe that the government is there to protect them, especially from unsafe products. But I’m here to tell them: That is not the fact,” Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-Texas. Additionally, President George W. Bush’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2008 would exacerbate this problem. CPSC’s budget for fiscal year 2007 was $62,728,000. Bush has proposed a new funding level of $63,250,000 for fiscal year 2008, a cut when taking inflation into account. Bush’s budget proposes a cut in staff down by 19 to 401 people.
It is almost hard to believe that the top official for protecting consumer product safety, including children’s products, would actually ask for less money and clout than Congress is willing to appropriate. It is as though the Administration has placed a “ringer” in charge of children’s safety. Can anyone honestly believe that an industry will police itself harder than will the government? As usual these days, big industry’s bottom line takes precedence; all else is secondary.
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