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Three ways Congress can give the CPSC teeth

Friday, September 14, 2007

toothless tiger.jpgLook up “toothless tiger” in the dictionary, and you’ll see a picture of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Or at least that’s the impression given by the media and many of those following the Mattel toy recalls. The government agency, which is tasked with protecting consumers from more than 15,000 products on the market, is understaffed and underfunded, but the toothless tiger metaphor gets employed so often because the CPSC has very little legal or prosecutorial power. China, for example, promised the agency’s chairwoman Nancy Nord that it would stop using lead paint on products destined for the U.S. The Chairwoman said, more or less, “I’ve heard that one before.”

Nord was called before a Senate subcommittee this week because the CPSC was accused of being “too lax” on imports, but the real culprit here is Congress. They apparently didn’t know how bad things are at the CPSC, but they’re the ones who can fix it. Now that they’ve got their chance, what should they do?

  1. Increase Staff: Right now, the entire CPSC is made up of 400 staff. Remember, this is the regulatory body charged with making sure 15,000 different types of products on store shelves and in our homes are safe. Of those 400 staffers, one of them – one single guy – works to ensure the safety of children’s products. Forget toys – he spends most of his time testing things like child carseats to make sure they’re not defective. Our most vulnerable population, and we’ve put a single person in charge of ensuring their products are safe. It’s shameful.
  2. Update Materials: That one guy I mentioned? His lab is from the 1950’s. Enough said.
  3. Give the CPSC Actual Power: When asked why her agency had not inspected shipments of Chinese products, Nord told Senator Durbin that the CPSC could not legally stop and inspect the imports. Think about that: the agency charged with protecting consumers from faulty products, and they can’t even do inspections without proving they’ve got a reason. Shouldn’t the burden of proof be on the manufacturers and those importing the products? After all, if their products are safe they’ve got nothing to fear from a CPSC inspection. Once the Senate subcommittee realized how little power the agency really has, it had some ideas:
    They proposed a long list of legislative changes that go much further — including increased fines for selling or failing to report dangerous goods, and a prohibition, backed by possible criminal prosecution, against retailers selling recalled products.
Congress seems to be prepared to give the tiger its teeth, although it’s a shame it took them this long to get there. Hopefully they'll move on it soon – I bet that one inspector could really use a vacation.