Product Safety Chief Sees Setbacks in Senate Bill

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 26, 2007

The chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission says a Senate bill that would more than double the agency's budget and expand its authority would be too difficult for the agency to implement and "put the American people at greater risk."

"It is my and the CPSC staff's assessment that many of our existing public safety activities would have to be severely curtailed or would cease entirely in order to attempt to fulfill all of the bill's proposed statutory directives," acting chairman Nancy Nord wrote Wednesday in a letter to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii). The Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer affairs is expected to take up the bill next week.

Lawmakers are looking to reinvigorate the CPSC following this summer's recalls of millions of toys for lead and other hazards. The agency, which is responsible for overseeing the safety of more than 15,000 consumer goods, has endured years of budget cuts that have left it with about 400 employees, less than half the number it started with in 1973. CPSC also relies on antiquated testing facilities and employs one full-time toy tester.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), would increase the agency's budget from $62.7 million to $141.7 million by 2015, raise the cap on penalties to $100 million from $1.8 million, ban lead in children's products, require toys be tested by independent labs and make it illegal to sell a recalled product.

"They are very short-handed . . . and don't have the jurisdiction they need to work in today's marketplace . . . We're trying to help this commission be more effective," Pryor said in an interview yesterday.

Although Nord supports parts of Pryor's bill, she said several provisions would strain agency resources, including one that would require that the agency hear and act upon whistle-blower complaints made by corporate employees.

Raising the cap on penalties would also produce more work for the agency, Nord said. Facing such significant exposure, companies would flood the agency with "virtually every consumer complaint and incident of any kind, regardless of any actual product safety issue," she said, "making it more likely that true safety issues will go unrecognized in the process." She urged lawmakers to lower the proposed cap to $10 million.

Altogether, CPSC staff estimated the agency would need at least 125 additional full-time employees and a minimum of $18 million in the first year alone to carry out the Pryor bill.

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