The Consumer Safety Agency, Stalled by Room at the Top

(By Keith Bendis -- Bloomberg News)
By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

From the outside, it looks like business as usual at the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The agency issued more than a dozen voluntary recall notices during the first two weeks of this month, pulling off the market batteries that can ignite, hooded sweatshirts with drawstrings that can choke children and jackets with snap closures that contain lead.

The reality, however, is that the agency is working with one hand tied behind its back. The three-person commission has been without a chairman since last summer, and for the past month, it has lacked a quorum to vote on issues central to its mission: suing a manufacturer, setting civil penalties or writing rules.

"You can rely on the integrity of most companies, but there are situations where the commission has to compel a recall by filing a lawsuit," said Alan Schoem, who directed the commission's Office of Compliance from 1997 to 2004.

The loss of authority illustrates what can happen in the final years of an administration when the urgency to fill vacancies is not as high a priority as at more-prestigious independent agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission.

Public safety may be at stake, too, because the lack of a quorum means the agency can't pursue its regulatory agenda to lower the level of lead in children's jewelry, redesign portable generators and address safety risks of all-terrain vehicles.

President Bush hasn't named a nominee to replace Chairman Hal Stratton, who left July 15. Industry and consumer groups say they regret the lack of leadership at the agency, which is charged with protecting the public from hazardous products, including toys, smoke alarms and baby cribs.

Consumer advocates said letting the CPSC's authority lapse is just the latest chapter in the years-long weakening of the agency. It has dealt with meager budget increases and staff cuts. There is no money, they say, to update product-testing or pursue emerging safety issues, such as the injury potential of Heelys, a combination sneaker and roller skate.

"With budget cuts and a lack of a quorum, the CPSC cannot fulfill its mission, at least not for consumers," said Rachel Weintraub, senior counsel and director of product safety for the Consumer Federation of America in the District. "It shows where the agency falls on the administration's list of priorities. There is no way they can continue the current level of work."

The commission has lost its quorum four other times, twice earlier in the Bush administration. Agency officials said that the CPSC is functioning and that companies that ignore their duty to report hazards do so at their peril.

"It's business as usual," said spokeswoman Julie Vallese. "There are procedures in place to allow us to continue advancing safety in the consumer marketplace."

The legislation that created the agency in 1972 lets two commissioners make up a quorum for six months after a vacancy occurs. Since Stratton left, the two remaining commissioners, Republican Nancy Nord and Democrat Thomas Moore, have approved two civil penalty settlements with companies, voted to approve a mandatory warning label for generators, amended a flammability standard for carpeting and started working on a rule to limit lead in children's jewelry.

"We rushed out a lot of things that were ripe," said Pamela Weller, counsel to Moore. That six-month quorum period ended Jan. 15. She said the current lack of a quorum means "public safety is held in abeyance until a third commissioner comes on board."

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