By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; A17
Americans direct their ire at the Internal Revenue Service during tax season and might critique the Transportation Security Administration while passing through airport security. This time of year, however, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is the agency drawing additional scrutiny as holiday shoppers buy toys and other household goods.
"CPSC always have problems around Christmas, because that's when people remember who they are," said Michael Brown, a former general counsel for the commission who now specializes in federal regulatory issues. "Eleven months of the year, people forget about them."
Indeed, this has been a busy month for the CPSC. An industry-wide recall last week of Roman shades and roll-up blinds was one of the largest in the agency's 36-year history. The shades have caused five deaths and 16 near-strangulations since 2006, while the blinds have caused three deaths since 2001.
The agency's commissioners also voted last week to delay a requirement that certain children's products be tested for lead content. That marks the second time the panel has voted to delay it, amid pressure from manufacturers worried about the costs associated with the new requirement.
As if that weren't enough, the agency is still trying to implement changes required by a 2008 congressional overhaul, which puts more emphasis on childhood safety, makes it illegal for stores to sell recalled products and places strict deadlines on other reforms.
The overhaul increased the CPSC's budget and staffing, "but the money and the staff came a little late with all of the deadlines they had to meet," said Rosario Palmieri, vice president for infrastructure and regulatory policy at the National Association of Manufacturers.
Palmieri said he hopes the commission moves fast enough to implement the changes, but slow enough so that the business community doesn't get caught off guard.
"We're hopeful that they get us to a place where everyone knows what's going on," he said.
The Obama administration "came in at a tough time in the agency's history," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety at the Consumer Federation of America.
"I think, for the most part, they've been doing a very good job in moving forward and bringing order to an agency that has new legislation that the whole entire stakeholder community is trying to figure out," Weintraub said.
The CPSC earns most of its attention from product recalls. The agency tracks the safety of more than 15,000 products, including toys, household supplies, sports equipment and furniture. Other regulatory agencies handle recalls for automobiles and related products, food, beverages, pesticides and cosmetics. The CPSC recalled 466 products during fiscal 2009, down slightly from 2008 and on par with recent years.
The industry-wide recall of shades and blinds is a rarity, since most CPSC recalls are specific to one company or product. The agency can issue recalls quickly when a company informs it of potential hazards, or after an analysis performed by agency inspectors and the impacted company determines a recall is necessary. The CPSC can also decide to issue a recall after conducting its own market surveillance and inspection of potentially dangerous products. Agency officials acknowledge the sensitive nature of their work.
"We certainly don't want any kids to die," said Marc Schoem, CPSC's deputy director for compliance and field operations. Despite deaths associated with the blinds and shades recall, a majority of recalls are preventative and result in no deaths or injuries, he said.
"We try to be preventive," he said. "Sometimes we are reactive."
The agency's great about issuing recalls, but needs to work on the follow-through, Weintraub said.
"Yes, there's been a lot of media attention, but the hard part is making sure that the products come back," she said.
Schoem said the CPSC is working on follow-through by reaching concerned customers in new ways, such as Facebook, Twitter and a blog on the commission's Web site. Staffers are putting the finishing touches on a database that will allow consumers to submit safety incidents to the CPSC, which will be archived for review by other concerned customers.
Because of the congressional overhaul, the agency is in the process of hiring dozens of more staffers. It plans to open its new testing facility in Rockville in late 2010.
"I think you're starting to see a shift in the course of this agency," Brown said. "They're out there trying to get a higher profile."