A process originally designed to insure consumer input into the process of setting federally mandated product safety standards may have proven to be the single most effective roadblock to the implementation of such standards.

In a spirited discussion before the House subcommittee on consumer protection and finance, the three members of the Consumer Product Safety Commission debated the effectiveness and need for what is known as the "offeror" process."Offeror" is a system that the CPSC must use in the standard-making process. It orders the commission to have all safety standards first written by a group made up of government outsiders - like Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. - with the requirement that both industry and consumers be represented on the standard developing committee.

The offeror process was written into the Consumer Product Safety Act because of a concern that the consumer be guaranteed involvement in the standard developing process.

But in yesterday's hearings, which are being held to help Congress decide on how much funding the CPSC should have for coming years, testimony from several witnesses revealed that the process has been shown to have serious drawbacks.

"The process has not served us well," said CPSC commissioner David Pittle in an interview after the hearings.

Pittle said that because many of the offeror committees were headed by people with little knowledge of the workings of government many of the final submissions "were not supported with technical rationale, were not legally justifiable or were just inadequate."

"Several times," Pittle added, "offerors gave us warmed over voluntary standards - the same standards we have previously found to be inadequate. That happened in the case of swimming pool slides and architectural glass."

In one case, the offeror said that matches in matchbooks should be made to burn only 15 seconds instead of the average 22 seconds they normally burn.

When Pittle questioned the offeror on why 15 dseconds was chosen - after several matchbook manufacturers complained of the huge costs needed to change their production equipment - the offeror said that consumer advocates decided on eight seconds (because that's how long it took them to light up) and the industry wanted the already existing 22, "so we split the difference."

"There was no data to support the need to go to 15 seconds, it was just an example of not understanding the need for a standard," Pittle said.

The Consumer Product Safety Act also mandates that the offeror process take only 150 days, and the commission only another 60 days to evaluate the offeror standard to make sure it was acceptable.

But because of various problems - many attributable to the offeror process - none of the standards since developed have been within those time constraints.

What was startling about yesterday's hearings was the apparent agreement between Pittle, CPSC chairman S. John Byington and commissioner Barbara Franklin over the need for some reform of the offeror process. All three had previously been at odds over the issue.

Agreement came after subcommittee chairman Rep. Bob Eckhardt, (D-Tex.) outlined his compromise proposal for amending the consumer act to allow the commission to by pass the offeror process "when it is the public interest to do so."

That situation would depend on the nature of the injury associated with the product involved, and the expertise of the commission with respect to the particularcriskinvolved, Eckhardt said. Another consideration would be an emergency situation - when some product is deemed to be doing damage that warranted immediate action.

Although each commissioner has had a different opinion of the worth of the offeror process, yesterday they seemed, for the first time, to have reached agreement on the future compromise plan that would allow it to continue to exist with the commission having new-power to bypass it.

"I have now shifted my position," said Franklin in an interview. "I do favor the increased flexibility as long as there is a need for it, and it will allow us to make substantive modifications."

She defended CPSC attempts under the existing law, despite time overruns. "There were expectations that standards would just be popping out, but they take time. If you compare our records with that of any other agency you won't find anyone else doing it any faster."

Both Franklin and Pittle were encouraged by the hearings, and for the future of their beleagured agency. "I seea new day coming," said Pittle.