The newest member of the Consumer Product Safety Commission yesterday attacked the agency's priority list, which he said "condemns the commission to endless repetitions of past serious mistakes."
In his first dissent from a commission action since arriving at the agency last August, Stuart Statler called the list of priority projects "a short-sighted vote of confidence in the current less-than-satisfactory state of affairs."
Statler said he was particularly upset with the failure of the commission to consider reviews of its internal operations as top priority items.
Calling many of those procedures "flawed," he said they curtail the commission's effectiveness. He specifically cited the need for a thorough review of how the agency deals with petitions and how the commission responds to Freedom-of-Information requests.He also called a review of the commission's present policy of opening up much of its activity to the public. None of the reviews, he said, are listed among the top priorities of the commission.
"Procedures control the course of substantive accomplishments," Statler said. "My experience here has convinced me that if this commission is ever to fulfill the mandate the Congress has set . . . we must substantially alter the way we approach our task. We must unite our hands from self-imposed bonds which prevent the agency from consistently acting in a timely manner on the public's behalf."
The CPSC has been an almost constant target of criticism since it was created six years ago. It has promulgated only a handful of formal safety standards, and seen several of its efforts to set industry safety rules bogged down for years.
At the same time, it generally has received high marks for opening up much of its process to public scrutiny and for efforts to pioneer new forms of regulation that involve industry cooperation and a lesser involvement by government.
"Procedures which enable interested members of the public to observe the decision-making process are key to the workings of democratic government," Statler acknowledged. "Limits on the public's access to the commission should only come after the most careful deliberation.
"Yet," he added, "the intent of the legislation was to open up the decision-making process without unnecessarily frustrating the overall mandate of any agency."
"In the case of the CPSC," Statler noted, "we have placed ourselves in a proverbial fish bowl." He said the commission has "carried openness to an extreme to the detriment of the work of the staff . . . the commissioners . . . the affected firms and industries . . . and, in the end, to the detriment of the American consumers."
As an example, Statler said CPSC staff attorneys frequently avoid face-to-face meetings with representatives of firms whose products may be dangerous, because of stringent restrictions on such meetings. Those restrictions were designed to avoid the appearance of improper relationships between government and regulated industries. They frequently force any meetings that are held to be announced in advance and open to the public.
"If we permitted our staff to pursue in private delicate negotiations as circumstances dictated, consumers might well be better served in the form of more comprehensive recalls," Statler said.
Other commission rules allow internal documents to be released to the public as soon as one supervisor -- "at any level" -- approves it and passes it along the bureaucratic chain.
"Under our system," Statler said, "The commissioners . . . are just as likely to learn about staff work by reading the newspapers or trade press as by reading everything that crosses their desks."
Statler said that in one case he first learned that the CPSC staff was studying problems associated with automatic garage doors by reading his Sunday paper.
"It makes absolutely no sense for commissioners to be among the very last to learn what the staff is doing," he said. The release of preliminary information can result in public confusion about what the agency is doing.
The situation is even worse with petitions, Statler said. The staff is forced to treat trivial petitions just like all the rest, thus giving industry a chance to tie the hands of the agency through petitions.