By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) yesterday called on the head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission to resign, and a Senate committee passed legislation to increase the embattled agency's funding and expand its authority.
Pelosi criticized acting chairman Nancy A. Nord for her opposition to parts of the Senate bill that would widen the CPSC's regulatory role in response to several high-profile recalls of toys containing dangerous amounts of lead and powerful magnets.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), would more than double the agency's funding over seven years, to $142 million. It would ban lead in products for children and raise the cap on civil penalties to $100 million, from $1.8 million. It would also give the agency new responsibilities, including collecting and acting on corporate whistle-blower complaints about product safety.
The legislation was passed over the objections of business groups, which said it would spark a wave of costly litigation. Nord, who was appointed by President Bush in 2005, has said she would welcome additional resources for her tiny agency but rejects most of the mandates contained in the Senate bill.
In an Oct. 24 letter to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), Nord said raising the civil-penalty cap would deter cooperation among businesses, and that the agency lacks the expertise to handle whistle-blower complaints. Companies would overwhelm the agency with the smallest complaints, she said.
CPSC staff estimates that it would need 125 more employees and $18 million to carry out Pryor's bill, which has the support of consumer groups. The CPSC, which is responsible for overseeing the safety of more than 15,000 types of consumer products, has about 400 employees -- less than half what it had when it started in 1973.
"This bill imposes new requirements on the agency but fails to provide the resources sufficient to carry them out," said Julie Vallese, a CPSC spokeswoman. "The resources the agency would welcome are ones that further the mission of the agency which is scientists and safety inspectors. This bill calls for too much possible litigation, which would end up meaning more lawyers."
Pelosi said Nord's position on the bill makes her the wrong person to lead the agency. "Any commission chair who, in the face of the facts that are so clear, says we don't need any more authority or any more resources to do our job does not understand the gravity of the situation," Pelosi said.
Nord has "no intention of resigning," Vallese said. "It's unfortunate some lawmakers have sought to divert attention from the real issues by attacking the acting chairman personally rather than taking the time to understand her concerns and to respond to them constructively."
Many of Nord's arguments were echoed yesterday by a coalition of business groups that includes the National Association of Manufacturers, the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association and the National Retail Federation.
"Our concern is the bill as drafted will lead to additional litigation without protecting the consumers from unsafe products," said Edward D. Krenik, a lobbyist for the Power Tool Institute. "We hope changes will be made as the process continues."
The Senate Commerce Committee largely ignored industry's objections, approving the Pryor bill on a voice vote.
Industry did support one of the bill's components: an amendment to make mandatory the currently voluntary standards for all-terrain vehicles. The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), is backed by the ATV industry, which hopes that mandatory safety standards would help stem an influx of cheaper Chinese imports.
Pryor's bill includes several provisions that consumer groups have been seeking for years. One amendment that passed would require online retailers to display the same "choking hazard" warnings printed on toy packaging with their product information. Another provision would require that postage-paid registration cards be included with durable children's products such as cribs, highchairs and strollers. The House passed an identical proposal earlier this month.