Consumer Product Safety Commission Chairman Terrence M. Scanlon yesterday criticized the agency he heads for regulating behind closed doors.

Scanlon, speaking at the Consumer Federation of America's 18th annual Consumer Assembly, compared the safety agency's practice of "back-door rulemaking" to taxation without representation, and said it is a major setback for consumers.

But R. David Pittle of Consumers Union, who also addressed the group, said the real setback for consumers was the direction in which Scanlon was taking the agency. Pittle also criticized the Office of Management and Budget's attempts to slash the commission's funds, and accused the administration of crippling an already wounded agency.

"Keep your eye on the CPSC," Pittle warned. "If you turn your head for a moment, it may be gone."

Scanlon, in his speech to about 400 participants in CFA's two-day conference, said the CPSC has begun a "worrisome trend" of issuing administrative complaints against all manufacturers in a given industry because of a generic industrywide safety problem. The CPSC actions taken against baby-gate makers was an example of closed-door rulemaking, he said.

The agency complaint, which asks manufacturers to fix the problem and/or recall the old products already on the shelves, is an "industrywide fix without consumer input," Scanlon said.

Scanlon stressed his approach of industrywide voluntary -- rather than mandatory -- standards as the wave of the future. "On the whole, I believe we can get quicker and more thorough protection through voluntary standards," Scanlon said.

Pittle, who was a CPSC commissioner for nine years before going to Consumers Union, challenged Scanlon by asking, "What do you do when a voluntary action doesn't work?

"Scanlon is like Will Rogers," Pittle added. "He has never met a voluntary standard he didn't like."

Pittle argued that in any industry, there will be a "rotten apple who believes in redesigning consumers rather than redesigning products."

The voluntary standards approach is "good public policy," Scanlon said, but he added that if manufacturers don't cooperate in getting unsafe goods out of the marketplace, he wouldn't hesitate to use the agency's regulatory powers. The legal settlement the agency reached last month with Honeywell Corp. to fix or replace thousands of gas valves and pay $800,000 in civil penalties was an example of stronger CPSC action when needed, Scanlon said.

Scanlon assured the consumer organization that recent CPSC cuts ordered by the OMB would not hamper the agency's ability to protect consumers. He was referring to the 10 percent across the board budget cut for administrative expenses that most federal domestic agencies are facing.

"Personally, I think we are going to benefit from the cuts because we're now forced to modernize our management system," he said.