The country’s leading regulator of everyday consumer items is embroiled in an increasingly nasty ideological battle over the role of government oversight that is being fought on the terrain of toys, cribs and other products.
With the Consumer Product Safety Commission split along party lines, the partisan paralysis that has crippled Washington’s ability to balance its budget and fix the economy now threatens to spread to the more prosaic business of government: assuring that roughly 15,000 products are reasonably safe to use.
Democratic and Republican commissioners alike say they are seeking to protect consumers, millions of whom are injured each year by items under the agency’s purview. But Democrats say the GOP commissioners consistently put the financial interest of business ahead of consumer safety, while Republicans say the Democrats often rush to regulate without assessing whether the safety benefits outweigh the costs.
This dispute, which has its roots in a three-year-old law that empowered the commission to become more aggressive, has been taking a particularly bitter and personal cast. In August, commission Chairman Inez Tenenbaum, a Democrat, accused her Republican colleagues in a Huffington Post opinion piece of “delay and distortion.” The Republicans blasted Tenenbaum for what they call her “radical agenda,” and even accused the majority of “regulatory malpractice” on one particularly heated issue.
Now, with the recent departure of Democrat Thomas Moore after 16 years on the board, the panel is split evenly down the middle and facing the prospect of complete gridlock.
The acrimony grows out of changes brought about in 2008, when Congress adopted the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, the most significant legislative change for the agency since its creation nearly four decades ago. Prompted by a string of high-profile recalls of lead-laden and defective toys, that legislation called on the once-sleepy agency to crank out a series of new rules under rigorous deadlines, forcing its five commissioners at the time to air their differences at public hearings while expanding their regulatory role.
Those differences erupted late last year when the commission voted along party lines to launch a consumer complaints database that enables people to report and review incidents involving products regulated by the agency. Republicans argued that any errors posted on the site could unfairly hurt a company’s bottom line and mislead consumers.
Soon after, the commission clashed again as it moved to bar the manufacture and sale of drop-side cribs, which had been linked to at least 32 infant and toddler deaths since 2000. Republicans tried unsuccessfully to delay the ban so that small retailers would have more time to sell off or retrofit their excess cribs.
Since then, the commissioners have sparred over a vote to further reduce lead levels in children’s products. Republicans objected that lead levels had been pushed so low since 2008 that requiring more reductions would drive up manufacturing costs and raise prices for consumers without any added health benefits.
Coming are proposals on the safety of table saws and all-terrain vehicles and the flammability of upholstered furniture. Every six months, the commission must also examine two voluntary standards for nursery products and make them mandatory, beefing them up if necessary. Next up: standards for bassinets, infant swings and children’s bed rails.
More than a dozen consumer groups wrote a letter in August to President Obama urging him to quickly nominate someone to fill the open seat or risk deadlock. The White House declined to comment on who the president might nominate and when.
“The past bickering indicates [the commissioners] may be unable to take action against companies that put unsafe products on the market or to address an emerging hazard that we’re not even aware of right now,” said Nancy A. Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger, which signed the letter.
Some of the most contentious issues have to do with the rules that govern how often the manufacturers of children’s products must arrange to have their items independently tested. Congress has directed the agency to consider ways to lower the testing costs.
Just days before Moore stepped down, the commission voted to set timetables for the testing. Republicans slammed the Democratic majority for holding the vote before addressing the cost issue.
“We witnessed a majority putting its last grasp of political power ahead of doing what was right,” Nancy Nord, a Republican commissioner since 2005, wrote on her blog after the vote. She said the way the majority handled the issue was “regulatory malpractice.”
Tenenbaum countered that the commission acted properly in pressing ahead with the testing timetables. She said the agency was already two years behind the schedule that Congress had set when it adopted the 2008 legislation.
That law transformed the agency. To help prepare for the coming crush of work, the legislation boosted the agency’s funding, expanded its staff and enabled the commission to fill all its vacant seats.
Tenenbaum, a lawyer and a former South Carolina schools superintendent, was tapped in June 2009. Democrat Robert Adler, an academic and former CPSC attorney, joined soon after, as did Republican Anne Northup, a former Kentucky congresswoman.
As the pace of work picked up, Republican commissioners took to blogging and writing opinion pieces criticizing various facets of the new rules. Tenenbaum, who long kept her peace, aired her own views in the Huffington Post article, where she accused her Republican colleagues of launching a “coordinated campaign” to ”delay and distort our actions in an attempt to circumvent the will of American families and Congress.”
In a more recent interview, Tenenbaum said she bemoaned the bitterness on the board. “I would like for the relationships to be collegial, but if they cannot be collegial then I will fight on behalf of children no matter what,” she said.
Northup and Nord were incensed by Tenenbaum’s critique.
Northup, who once suggested that the commission should be reduced to just one commissioner in part to save tax dollars, said she was “shocked” at Tenenbuam’s Huffington Post piece.
“Basically, she controls the whole agenda, and she has clearly over many months decided to proceed forward without regard to making concessions or trying to build a consensus,” Northup said.
On a blog posting, Nord featured a cork board with a “Thou Shalt Not disagree with the Chairman” note pinned to it.
“The purpose of having five commissioners is to have a variety of viewpoints,” she said.