Dissatisfaction over the current direction of the Consumer Product Safety Commission once again has prodded business officials to try to reduce the controversial independent agency to a smaller organization that could be controlled more tightly by the president.
Last week, after hearing an increasing number of complaints about the CPSC's current management, three business lobbyists launched a quiet campaign to transfer the agency to the Department of Health and Human Services, where it would be headed by a single administrator instead of five commissioners.
But instead of building a coalition, all that the three lobbyists apparently have managed to do is further embitter the already sour relationship between the consumer and business groups.
The members of what one source later described as the "troika" are Josh Lanier, a representative for the owners of small businesses who install insulation made with formaldehyde; John Byington, a former CPSC chairman who currently represents dozens of companies--including the manufacturers of formaldehyde--that have business before the agency; and Jeffry Perlman, director of government operations for the U.S. Chambers of Commerce.
They made numerous phone calls to consumer groups, congressional aides and business representatives. They made their proposal even though Congress just a few months ago blocked a similar Reagan administration plan to fold the CPSC into the Department of Commerce.
Lanier, the troika's apparent leader, explained that action was needed now because "the commission, as it now stands, is on an accelerated collision course of self-destruction, which we don't believe is in the best interest of the consumer."
In particular, Lanier and his group said they were disturbed by reports of internal dissension at the agency--dissension that began largely after the new chairman, Nancy Harvey Steorts, took office.
Conflicts between the four other commissioners and Steorts had made it increasingly difficult for the agency's five commissioners to deal with the sharp 30 percent reduction Congress ordered it to make in its budget. And failure to deal with the cuts had been impeding the commission's consideration of several substantive health and safety rules, Lanier and others noted.
"It is in no one's best interest to let it continue as is," Lanier said. "The commission as it exists now should be abolished. In its place, a new agency should be simultaneously and quickly created with a single administrator--and perhaps even with an increase in its budget." The agency needs to continue in some form, Lanier argued, adding that failure to move now would ensure that the agency would be completely wiped out when its congressional lease on life expires in two years.
But the business lobbyists acknowledged that their proposal would go nowhere in Congress without the support of some consumer groups.
That support, however, was far from coming. Although consumer representatives were equally disgruntled about the commission's recent activities, they were skeptical of the business officials' motives, fearing that the move was really an attempt to gut the agency.
"It sounded to me like a ploy to abolish the commission," said Sandra L. Willett, executive vice president of the National Consumers League. In Congress' current budget-cutting mood, it would be very difficult to get Congress to create a new agency after it finishes abolishing an old one, she noted.
What's more, she and others charged that placing it in a larger executive branch agency would be equivalent to burying it. That's why consumer groups fought the earlier administration proposal to transfer the CPSC to the Department of Commerce. "We didn't spend the past three to four months fighting to retain the agency to see it re-established in someone else's image now," no matter how unhappy the consumer movement may be with the CPSC, Willett said.
Especially disconcerting to the consumer groups were the people leading the fight for the agency's transfer--two representatives of the formaldehyde industry that could be affected by the agency's proposal to ban home insulation made with formaldehyde.
"The formaldehyde industry may believe that they may never get the CPSC off its back unless they get it into an agency where a department secretary has to sign off on the rule . . . where they at least increase the chance of having more influence over the outcome," charged Mark Silbergeld, director of Consumers Union's Washington office.
Byington and Lanier adamently deny they were working for the formaldehyde industry. Byington, saying he long has favored transferring the CPSC into another agency, responded to the charge by saying his clients "don't have anything to do with this. They weren't aware of this and weren't even billed for it. It is purely a personal situation."
But what appears to have killed the coalition was a "phenomenal breakdown in communications," Byington admitted. Although Byington and his colleagues deny the charge, consumer groups contended that their positions constantly were being misrepresented, that the business lobbyists were telling congressional aides and other consumer groups that other consumer advocates and key congressmen had signed on when, in fact, they hadn't.
As one congressional aide said, "It was an attempt at a self-fulfilling rumor. They were saying there was a groundswell of support in the hopes of creating a groundswell."
But this tactic backfired, the aide added. For when consumer groups found out their interests may have been mispresented, they scratched any consideration of the proposal--refusing to attend a meeting even to discuss it.
As a result, another attempt to transfer the CPSC is dead--at least for the moment.
Lanier says he has not given up. "I'm going to see if we can restart it."