Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.) yesterday had a few kind words for Terrence M. Scanlon, chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Very few.
He called Scanlon "the James Watt of consumer protection."
Florio's comparison of Scanlon to the former interior secretary, about the nicest thing Florio had to say, came as he and other House members announced legislation that would effectively strip Scanlon of most of his powers.
Scanlon, a Democrat, has infuriated Democrats and consumer groups by taking actions that his critics say have throttled the agency's staff and rendered the 14-year-old commission impotent. Last month, to the dismay of the agency's two Republican commissioners and consumer groups, he removed the CPSC's longtime compliance director from his job.
Florio's comments yesterday were glowing compared to the remarks of Rep. Dennis E. Eckart (D-Ohio). "The Consumer Product Safety Commission is not worthy of its name," Eckart said.
The two lawmakers accused Scanlon of destroying the agency's effectiveness by overriding fellow commissioners through "a tyranny of the minority." Eckart twice compared Scannell to Rita M. Lavelle, the Environmental Protection Agency official who was imprisoned after a scandal at that agency.
Scanlon gave no indication that he is considering leaving the agency, which he has headed since December 1984. He said in a statement that he would ignore the personal attacks. He accused his critics of ignoring "the fine work this agency is doing."
A CPSC spokesman disclosed yesterday that David Schmeltzer, the agency's chief of compliance and administrative litigation, has quit rather than accept a different position.
Under Scanlon's plan, Schmeltzer was to be placed in charge of a study of the agency's field operations, a change that Scanlon opponents said would remove one of the few remaining strong consumer advocates from the commission's senior staff. Schmeltzer will join a private consulting firm in the Washington area, effective next Wednesday, the spokesman said.
It was his transfer and the outcry it brought that largely was behind yesterday's legislative proposal, something that Florio described as "Plan 2 . . . the hammer."
Scanlon earlier this month rejected Plan 1, a joint letter from Florio and Eckart, urging him to consider resigning. He called that request "ludicrous."
Florio and Eckart said they believe their legislation, which also would mandate that the CPSC begin to regulate several products it has studied, has a good chance of passage in this session. Florio said it has the support of a majority of the members of the Energy and Commerce Committee's consumer protection subcommittee, which he heads.
He said he has discussed the measure with Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), who heads a similar Senate committee, and that, "conceptually, we are coming from the same place" on the legislation. It would take the form of a CPSC reauthorization bill.
A key provision of the bill would remove Scanlon's administrative powers and mandate that the chairman be elected by the two other commissioners rather than appointed by the president. It would also allow the commission to meet with only two members present instead of the requirement that all three attend any session.
"It's a signal to the present chairman, regardless of what happens to the bill, that he resign," said Rep. William B. Richardson (D-N.M.), one of the members of Florio's subcommittee backing the bill.
Scanlon has used the quorum rule to delay action on issues he does want the commission to address simply by refusing to show up for meetings, Florio said. The bill would also allow states greater room for acting against unsafe products and would require the agency to release more information on potentially unsafe products under the Freedom of Information Act.
The bill would direct the CPSC to act on fire standards for sleepware, disposable cigarette lighters, toy lawn darts, all-terrain vehicles (motorized off-the-road vehicles that the CPSC has declared are extremely hazardous) and all other items that the agency has been studying. The agency last December referred action on all-terrain vehicles to the Justice Department, a step that Florio said has created a delay while an average of 20 people a month die in accidents.
Injuries from disposable butane lighters account for 200 deaths a year, Florio said. Pulling out a lighter and flicking it, Eckard said: "The Consumer Product Safety Commission has been fiddling while the consumer burns."