Efforts to revamp the budget, structure and mission of the Consumer Product Safety Commission appear to have bogged down in a dispute between two House Commerce Committee members with widely different views of where the agency should be heading.
In fact, the disagreement, which focuses on whether the agency should remain an independent, collegial body or be put into the Department of Commerce, is threatening changes of the agency's gaining any type of congressional reauthorization.
At odds over the matter are Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of a House subcommittee that oversees the agency, and Rep. Phil Gramm (D-Tex.), who along with the Reagan administration is pushing the CPSC reorganization effort.
Although Waxman's subcommittee passed a two-year CPCS reauthorization bill and Gramm's amendment to restructure the commission lost in subcommittee last week on a 10-10 vote, some congressional observers say the vote in the full House committee is too close to call. Full committee markup of the legislation, originally scheduled for today, has been canceled.
"Perhaps the best thing to do at this point would be not to authorize the CPSC at all," said Waxman. "We're not going to bring it up. To put it into Commerce is to abolish it."
The Reagan administration, which proposed a 30 percent cut in the CPSC budget, has won victories on the financing of the agency in committees of both the House and the Senate and is now aggressively pushing for the placement of the agency in the Commerce Department.
Gramm agrees with the administration, calling the fight over the agency "the first real test" of whether Congress is serious about revamping the regulatory process.
"We're doing a very poor job of supervising regulatory agencies," Gramm said of congressional oversight activities. "It's time to put some of these functions back into the executive branch of government as a way to get government and business working more closely together."
If the authorization bill remains bottled up, the agency will go without its authorization, a situation similar to that experienced by the Federal Trade Commission, which continued to be funded for several years without authorizing legislation. The situation sets up the possibility that Gramm and his allies might seek to restructure the agency through the appropriations process. Without an appropriations bill, the doors of the agency could conceivably be shut.
In another blow to government efforts to break up the read-to-eat cereal business, the Federal Trade Commission has decided to ask the Office of Personnel Management to appoint a law judge to investigate the agency's handling of its antitrust case against the industry's three largest companies.
The FTC, in a letter to OPM Director Donald J. Devine, asked the government's personnel agency to appoint an administrative law judge "with at least five years' experience in dealing with formal, complex proceedings, such as this," to handle the matter. A decision from the independent prober should, if possible, be handed down within 90 days, the FTC wrote.
The issue before the commission is whether the FTC staff and commission members may have acted improperly in retaining the services of the agency's own law judge, Harry R. Hinkes, on a consultant basis, after Hinkes announced his retirement in 1978. The contract for Hinkes would have brought him about $72,000 a year and the cereal companies have charged that the action has tainted their case.
The FTC suit, brought in 1972, charges that Kellogg Co., General Mills Inc. and General Foods Corp. engaged in a "shared monopoly".