By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 16, 2008
Lawmakers reached an agreement yesterday on a Senate bill that clears the way for the first major overhaul of the nation's consumer product safety system in a generation.
The deal, forged by Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), ended weeks of behind-the-scenes wrangling and salvaged congressional efforts to address last year's recalls of millions of Chinese-made toys, including iconic playthings such as Barbie and Thomas the Tank Engine.
A Senate vote is expected the first week of March, said Lisa Ackerman, a spokeswoman for Pryor. Product-safety legislation passed the House on Dec. 19, but a similar bill in the Senate has been the subject of negotiations since the new year.
There was broad agreement on many parts of the legislation, such as increasing the Consumer Product Safety Commission's annual budget to $155.9 million by fiscal year 2015; it was $63 million in fiscal year 2007. New safeguards such as mandatory independent laboratory tests on toys before they are sold and tighter limits on lead in all children's products, including metal jewelry, also had wide support.
But lawmakers, industry lobbyists and consumer advocates differed over how to ease restrictions on the CPSC's ability to alert the public about dangerous products and how much authority to give state attorneys general to help enforce federal product safety laws.
Under the version of the Senate bill agreed to yesterday, the CPSC would be able to alert consumers about product hazards more quickly if the commission determined there were pressing health and safety reasons to do so. The CPSC now must give manufacturers at least 30 days to review information the agency plans to release about their products, and companies can take the agency to court to block disclosures. Under the bill, manufacturers would retain the right to sue.
Consumer advocates won a provision that would increase public access to consumer complaints about products. Currently, the CPSC and a manufacturer can be aware of a problem without telling the public. The Senate bill would require the CPSC to create a database of consumer complaints to the agency.
The Senate bill would also extend whistle-blower protection to manufacturers' employees, giving them the right to file complaints about their employers with the Labor Department if they are fired or punished for exposing unsafe products or practices.
The Senate still has to work out its differences with the House, which didn't include a complaint database or whistle-blower protection in its bill.
Diana Degette (D-Colo.), vice chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called those differences "minor" and said the Senate deal improves prospects for final passage.
Consumer advocates mostly approved of the Senate deal. Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America said the measure contained "significant improvements over the status quo."
Ellen Bloom, director of federal policy for Consumers Union, said the agreement "adds important new tools to the CPSC toolbox, and moves us closer to finally fixing our broken product safety system."
Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, dissented, saying the Senate bill would leave the CPSC with "far less authority than most regulatory agencies."
Manufacturers were also unhappy with the Senate bill. "We continue to have serious concerns about several of the provisions in this legislation," Rosario Palmieri, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers, said in a written statement. Palmieri singled out attorney general enforcement, whistle-blower protection and information disclosure for criticism, saying they would "not improve product safety or strengthen the CPSC, but instead promote litigation and lead to much more delay in taking action to address unsafe products and protecting the public."
The CPSC has been operating under limited authority since Feb. 3, when a temporary extension of its two-member quorum ended. The panel normally needs three members for a quorum but has had only two members since July 2006. Both the House and Senate bills would grant another extension.