Susan King, the new head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, says that the beleaguered agency has been trying to do too much with too little, and she is going to change all that.
"My major interest since coming to the commission has been to try and get the commission to focus on far fewer projects - projects that present the most serious hazards . . . and those in which we can produce some results," she said during a wide-range interview with reporters yesterday - her first press conference since assuming control of the CPSC five weeks ago.
King, who was first appointed to the commission by President Carter in March, has a long and tough road ahead of her.
The 38-year-old consumer activist and former official of the Federal Election Commission is charged with running an agency that narrowly escaped being terminated by Congress in this, its fifth year of existence.
Beset by criticism from consumers, Congressmen and industry charging it with accomplishing little, the commission has seen its budget drop in actual spending power over each of the past four years.
And the previous chairman, Republican S. John Byington, was the target of severe criticism from the Hill and from the Civil Service Commission, which said that he was breaking dozens of Civil Service rules in his attempts to streamline the CPSC and make it more manageable.
But the energetic and optimistic King is not discouraged. She has the only federal regulatory agency dominated by women (there are three women commissioners and one man) and one of the youngest commissions, with an average age of 38.
And, she has what she calls "a dedicated and talented staff.
Perhaps more important, she has helped to restore harmony to a commission that in the past has been bitterly divided between consumer and industry interests. "We have a unified commission," she said, "which shares the same commitment to product safety. We think we can work very well together."
With a decidedly consumer slant on the commission now, King promises that the agency will be taking stronger stands on a smaller number of issues rather than spreading itself too thin.
The first example of that new policy was announced two weeks ago when the commission sealed down its list of top priority projects from 46 to 24. At times in the past three years, that priority list had been as high as 300.
The new priority targets for safety action include communications antennae, estimated to have caused 494 deaths over a two-year period: the chemical benzene that has been linked with leukemia; asbestos as a potential carcinogen; cellulose home insulation as a potential fire hazard, and the flammability of upholstered furniture.
"It's clear that we have to operate with the staff and resources that the commission has now," King said. "We can't be all things to all people. We need to utilize, in a balanced fashion, the resources that we have available to us. That means we will be operating in everything from a regulatory mode to an information and education function."
And, King said, "we want to focus on specific hazards." In the case of power lawn mowers, for example, "we are not trying to build the all perfect, 100 percent hazard-free lawn mower. We are trying to deal, in a two-phase program, with two specific hazard problems - leg contact and thrown objects. There had been an effort in the past to try to deal in too broad a range."
One of the problems with the commission's past image has been criticism that it has only passed a handful of mandatory safety standards, the commission's toughest sanction - forcing an industry to put certain safeguards on products.
But because mandatory standards are also the most difficult for the commission to formulate - they have to be drawn up under a burdensome program that requres considerable outside contributions - it has taken years in some cases to pass one standard.
King proposes that the agency be judged on other considerations. "There are a number of criteria by which the commission should be evaluated in the future that have not been cranked into the process to date," King said.
"I would suggest that there are many, many other things [besides, mandatory standards] that Congress the White House, the public and the press should look at in evaluating the CPSC in the next two or three years - bans, recalls, imminent hazard warnings, and actions where the commission moves against specific product hazards already in the market-place."
There have been, for example, some 600 recalls of an estimated 7 million units already in the market for product hazards, she said.
"And we have to look at the improvements voluntary undertaken by the industry as a result of commission pressure," she said. "There have been a number of non-quantifiable, infinitely numeasurable things," that must be considered when judging the performance of the CPSC, she added.
One area she is looking at closely is the voluntary standard process. In what she calls a key experiment, commission staffers are working with the chain saw industry to develop their own voluntary standard within a year. Since it is a small industry - only 11 manufacturers - the commission can easily monitor whether or not the individual manufacturers adhere to whatever safeguards the industry proposes.
But King is careful about not putting too much regulatory power in the hands of the companies that are being regulated. "You can pass a voluntary standard and have 50 percent non-compliance in the industry and you haven't accomplished anything," she said.
She said she is also exploring the possibility of easing present rules to allow the CPSC to take good voluntary standards that have been developed and make them into mandatory standards if the industry is not following the voluntary sanctions.
King is cheered by what she calls "a hightened awareness of the consumer." She points to recent national polls that show that product safety is in the top three or four concerns of the American consumer.
"It is important for the consumer to understand that while there is a price that one pays for safety in the product, the price of injury, death, hospitalization, can be a much higher price," King said.
Despite the fact that the Office of Management and Budget was trying to eliminate the agency at the same time the White House was offering her a job there, King feels she now has the support of the administration. "President Carter has indicated to me that he is committed to giving this agency a chance," she said.
"I would like to see an open and tough commission, fair and realistic to both the consumer and industry. It is important that we focus on responsible regulation and that common sense be the bottom line of our judgmental process."
She said she hoped "that we can stand back and not get so caught up in the every day nitty gritty small decisions that we lose sigh of what our objective is: to reduce injuries and maintain a safer environment in the home and in recreational areas."