The Federal Trade Commission and the Office of Management and Budget are jockeying for position in the race to establish new ground rules for the increasing use of the private sector to develop federal standards and regulations, an area of strong interest for the business community.
But while the two groups are vying to see who will set the all-important ground rules for the so-called voluntary-standard process and the relationship between the federal government and various private standards-setting organizations (like Underwriter's Labs), at least one federal regulator is miss-least on federal regulatory is raising serious questions about the setting out of the government.
Consumer Product Safety Commission member R. David Pittle said in the recent speech to the national Association of Manufacturers, "We are getting too many unkept promises and too many unfinished and unsatisfactory standards when we 'go voluntary' from the beginning."
Pittle told the manufacturers that he favors a system under which the regulators begin every project as if it were leading toward a government-mandated standards, and divert from the path when a particular industry appears ready and willing to police itself adequately.
He pointed to the television and the Christmas tree light industries which, when faced with the possibility of tough mandatory standards from the government, instead imposed 95 percents of those standards on themselves.
But when federal agencies have begun standard-setting processes with the intent of having the industry involved develop its own rules, the industry frequently drags its feet without the urgency of facing federal mandates, Pittle contend.
"In at least one instance where voluntary action had been promised to avert mandatory regulation, when the commission decided not to commence (mandatory) rulemaking, the voluntary action disappeared," he pointed out.
But despite Pittle's concerns, which are shared by many consumer activists and regulators, both the FTC and OBM are proceeding in the belief that voluntary standards will be the wave of the future, at least partially because they are perceived to be a means of reaching certain regulatory goals at a lower cost.
But serious questions have been raised about the credibility of many of the private testing organizations, doing work for the government, and the efforts today are aimed t setting standards for those organizations.
The first major jolt to the credibility of private standards organizations came in 1974 when the FTC filed a complaint against serveral plastic manufacturers and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), a major standards-setting organization, after several people ddied in fires fueled by foamed plastics that ASTM had tested and said would not burn.
The FTC carged that the ASTM had been used by the plastic manufacturers to mislead the public, and the case ended in a consent decree being filed and a consent decree being filed and a study of all standards and certification groups being launched.
That study, four years in the making, was released last December. It alleged that the groups investigated "frequently caused or contributed to substantial consumer injuries."
The report led the FTC to propose rules which would make it illegal for standards groups to operate in secret, as well as to set other procedural safeguards for the development of product standards and certification processes. The rules also would create channels for challenging allegedly deceptive or restrictive standards.
Meanwhile, the Office of Management and Budget is working on its own policy circular that would put the Commerce Department in charge of the list of private groups that would be eligible for federal funding for standard setting, and the regulation of those private groups.
The OMB plan alarms many consumerists, who contend that Commerce has long been too close to those private standards-setting groups.
That view is denied by Howard Forman, deputy assistant secretary of Commerce for product standards. But Forman himself serves on the board of the American National Standards Institute, the largest of all standard-writing groups in the country.
And Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House sub-cimmittee on energy and power, calls the OMB proposal "quite unacceptable," particularly because the public has not had a chance to comment on many of its provissos.
What specifically irks Dingell and several consumer advocates is that the OMB plan does not require a balance between industry and consumer input in standards, even though it commits federal funds to standards-setting. Center for Auto Safety Director Clarence Ditlow warns of the possibility under such a system "of tremendous consumer abuse, and more standards like the plastic disaster."
The FTC is studying public reaction to its proposed rules.
White House personnel staffers were scheduled to interview today the most likely successor to Elizabeth Dole on the Federal Trade Commission.
She is Pat Bailey, 41, an Arkansas Republican now working for Ruth Prokop at the Merit System's Protection Board. Before that, Bailey spent two years at the Justice Department in the Attorney General's Policy Office and helping in the search for more women judges.
She has worked on Ford and Rockefeller campaigns, and spent six years at the Agency for International Development. Because Bailey has a law degree from American University and a master's degree in international relations, her biggest risk is over-qualification.
Although there are several other candidates to be interviewed at the White House, knowledgable FTC insiders give Bailey the inside track.