Consumer Safety Panel Powers to Diminish

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 2, 2008

When the Consumer Product Safety Commission returns to work on Monday, it will not have the authority to adopt safety rules, order mandatory recalls of dangerous products, or impose civil penalties on companies that do not report product hazards immediately.

The agency, which polices more than 15,000 types of products, will lose those powers tomorrow when its temporary quorum expires for the second time in little more than a year.

Normally, the CPSC needs all three members for a quorum, but it has had a vacancy since Chairman Harold D. Stratton Jr. left in July 2006, leaving Nancy A. Nord, who has been acting chairman, and Thomas Hill Moore on the commission. The agency was able to operate with two members for six months. The temporary quorum lapsed in January 2007, and Congress granted an extension in August.

Congress has not passed another one, and the Bush administration has not nominated a new chairman who could restore quorum since its last pick, industry lobbyist Michael E. Baroody, withdrew his name in May after protest by Senate Democrats and consumer groups.

Congress is considering extending the quorum as part of legislation to improve the nation's product-safety system. That legislation is tied up in the Senate.

Consumer advocates and industry lobbyists said the end of the quorum underscores the need for product-safety reform.

"With globalization of the safety supply chain and newer more complicated products, we need a stronger CPSC more than ever," said Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America. Edward D. Krenik, of Bracewell & Guliani, who represents manufacturers of all-terrain vehicles, said, "We hope that the Senate soon follows the House and passes legislation that will provide additional resources and funding to CPSC."

With the end of quorum looming, the CPSC has raced to finish work on safety regulations for lighters, baby pillows, children's metal jewelry and upholstered furniture.

The agency continued to work yesterday on a mandatory regulation limiting lead in children's metal jewelry, but such a regulation may be unnecessary if Congress passes pending legislation that would ban lead in children's products.

Earlier this week, the CPSC announced a $500,000 penalty against the liquidating trust for Vornado Air Circulation Systems, for not reporting 300 incidents of overheating, melting and burning portable heaters over a period of nine years. The agency has imposed $2 million in penalties on five companies since August and overseen more than 270 recalls.

The end of the quorum won't affect the CPSC's ability to oversee voluntary recalls or ongoing research and investigations. And the agency's staff will be able to impose civil penalties in some open cases, spokeswoman Julie Vallese said.

"This agency will not come to a halt in enforcing its authority in protecting consumers," she said.

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