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Congress Leaves Product Safety Overhaul in Limbo

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 20, 2007

After a year in which American parents discovered Elmo was tainted with lead, Polly had dangerous magnets in her pockets, and one of this season's most sought-after toys was laced with a coma-inducing chemical, Congress is going home this week without reforming the nation's consumer product safety system.

The House passed legislation yesterday that would ban lead from children's products, require toy testing by independent labs, and boost funding for the Consumer Product Safety Commission over the next several years. But the Senate left without taking up that bill or a version passed by a Senate committee in October, making it less likely that toys sold next year will be affected by any regulatory changes.

On Tuesday, Congress approved two far more limited measures affecting the agency as part of a larger spending bill. It passed $80 million for the 2008 fiscal year budget for the CPSC and a ban on industry-sponsored travel for commissioners and staff.

The budget is $17 million more than the agency received for fiscal year 2007 and is the CPSC's largest funding increase in more than 30 years. The money will go toward additional staff and improvements to its antiquated testing facilities.

The travel ban was passed after The Washington Post reported that the current and former heads of the CPSC took nearly 30 trips paid for by industries they regulate, including the toy industry.

The delay in the overhaul of the nation's product safety system comes as a disappointment to the bill's supporters in Congress, consumer advocates and the toy industry, which were hoping to get reforms passed by Christmas as a symbolic gift for consumers. The toys that will be opened next week were made months ago, and toymakers are already at work on products for next year.

The bill's sponsors hope to cut a deal with the White House and Senate Republicans by the time Congress returns in late January. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who sponsored the Senate bill, said on the floor yesterday that he was "very close to achieving bipartisan compromise to allow this bill to go forward early next year."

Chris Byrne, an independent toy industry analyst, said the longer it takes for Congress to act, the harder it will be for toymakers to comply with new regulations in time for the next holiday shopping season.

"The challenge is going to be when it passes, if it passes, and what the timeline is for implementation because . . . [manufacturers] will be finalizing orders [for next Christmas] in March and April," he said. "That's when they flip the switch and start producing."

Additionally, the CPSC's temporary quorum expires in early February, according to Scott Wolfson, the commission's spokesman. Without quorum, the commission, which is being allowed to operate with only two out of three members, can't initiate lawsuits against businesses that refuse to recall dangerous products, and it can't approve new regulations. The House and the Senate bills include provisions that would temporarily extend quorum.

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) blamed the logjam in the Senate on Republican failure to get behind the Pryor bill, which like the House bill, increases funding for the CPSC, bans lead in children's products and requires independent testing of toys, but has other provisions to which the White House and manufacturers object.

"It is hard to imagine at a time when millions of American families are frightened by the toys they buy we couldn't find a Republican sponsor," Durbin said.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said he was working with Pryor and other senators to resolve differences. "I am absolutely not holding up this legislation," he said.

Nancy Nord, acting chairman of the CPSC, praised the House for its action yesterday, saying in a statement that the bill "gives the CPSC the additional tools and resources to address the growing issue of imports and other important product safety issues."

Consumer advocates supported many aspects of the House bill, such as tougher lead standards, and registration cards for car seats, strollers and other durable products for juveniles. But some criticized the House bill for retaining businesses' right to sue the CPSC over unwanted disclosures and for not requiring that information about product hazards such as consumer complaints be made public. The House "can do better to protect American children," Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook said in a statement.

Toy manufacturers had attempted to salvage this holiday shopping season by retesting their wares. But attempts to reassure parents were hurt by a steady stream of discoveries by watchdog groups of lead in more children's products.

"Whether there is legislation or not, [manufacturers] will be paying very close attention to the product they bring into the U.S. next year," Toy Industry Association President Carter Keithley said. "Having legislation would provide [manufacturers] clarity as to what's required and give the public confidence."

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