Reviving a Consumer Watchdog

Nancy A. Nord, acting chairman, discusses a toy recall at Consumer Product Safety Commission headquarters in Bethesda on Aug. 14.
Nancy A. Nord, acting chairman, discusses a toy recall at Consumer Product Safety Commission headquarters in Bethesda on Aug. 14. (By Jay Mallin -- Bloomberg News)
By Ann Brown and Pamela Gilbert
Sunday, August 26, 2007

More than 25 million toys have been recalled in the United States in the past nine months, involving such well-known brands as Mattel and Hasbro and affecting such popular toys as Thomas the Tank Engine and Dora the Explorer. Hazards include lead and magnets that can be fatal when swallowed. Much attention has focused on the fact that many of these products were made in China. But problems with product safety regulation in this country run much deeper.

Parents across America are wondering if they can trust the toys on store shelves not to injure their children, or worse. They are asking who's in charge and what are they doing to keep dangerous toys from being sold.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is in charge, and what it's doing isn't enough. The commission is a small federal agency with an enormous mission: ensuring that the products used at home, at school and for recreation are safe. The agency oversees about 15,000 types of products that are associated with about 27,000 deaths and 33 million injuries each year, costing the nation more than $700 billion annually.

The commission was established in 1973, during the height of the consumer movement. Health experts and consumer rights advocates argued that the federal government had an important role in protecting children and families from faulty products whose life-threatening hazards were often hidden.

In its early years, the commission enjoyed bipartisan support, which resulted in steady budget and staff increases. Its activities involving just three types of products -- baby cribs, baby walkers and child-resistant cigarette lighters -- are estimated to save the United States about $2 billion and prevent more than 300 deaths and 10,000 injuries annually.

But the era of downsizing government changed things. Ronald Reagan and many members of Congress believed they were elected with a mandate to decrease domestic spending, no matter how beneficial to citizens or cost-effective that spending was. The commission's budget, like that of many agencies, was slashed, and its powers were reduced.

The commission has never recovered from those changes. Proposed 2008 funding is about $63 million, with only 400 full-time staffers -- which would make the agency less than half its size in 1978. Today our economy is global; more products enter our stores from other nations than ever before, yet we have far fewer resources dedicated to ensuring their, and by extension our, safety.

This history helps explain how we got to our current situation, where millions of toys have been recalled in the past year. What is the commission doing? According to recent news reports, the agency is "negotiating" a plan with the toy industry to keep dangerous toys out of stores. Not bringing action to enforce the law, not assessing penalties, not writing regulations. Negotiating, because it is too small and underfunded and because it lacks the will to do much else.

The commission has no chairman and has lacked a quorum for months. Without a quorum, it cannot bring a lawsuit, assess a penalty or enact new regulations to address hazards in the marketplace. Congress recently passed legislation to give it a quorum for six months, but after that, if no chairman has been approved, the commission will again be effectively unable to act.

Now is the time to revitalize the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The fact is, Americans have never rejected the notion of spending money for cleaner air, unadulterated food or safe appliances. Judging from the dangerous foods and products that have made their way to consumers, industry is doing an unacceptable job of policing itself. That government regulation is necessary has already been accepted -- tainted pet food and pharmaceuticals from China prompted legislation to strengthen the ability of the Food and Drug Administration to keep dangerous items from being imported. Product safety regulation needs similar measures.

First, President Bush should immediately nominate, and Congress should confirm, a chairman with a background in product safety and a commitment to consumer protection.

Second, Congress should pass emergency legislation to ban lead in children's products. There is no reason to tolerate even a small amount of lead in any product intended for use by children. It should also require pre-market testing of all children's products before they can be sold in the United States, making those that sell products in this country responsible for ensuring compliance with safety standards.

Finally, the agency must be given adequate budget and staffing levels to meet these new responsibilities.

The United States has an agency with the authority to keep our families safe, but it has been neutered almost to the point of uselessness. The recent recalls have reinforced to a new generation the need for an extra layer of protection from companies that are unscrupulous or merely careless. The commission can provide that protection if it is empowered and enabled to do its job.

Ann Brown and Pamela Gilbert served as chairman and executive director, respectively, of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission during the Clinton administration.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company