The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Consumer agency elects new chairman with a surprise choice

The GOP-majority board chose an agency veteran, a Democrat, to lead during troubled times

The Consumer Product Safety Commission elected a new leader Friday, with Democrat Robert Adler edging out other contenders to be the agency’s acting chairman in a vote by the commissioners.

Adler’s win is a surprise, given that the commission is made up of a 3-2 Republican majority and that the current acting chairwoman is Republican Ann Marie Buerkle. She announced earlier this year that she was withdrawing from the nomination process to continue as both a commissioner and the agency’s chairwoman. She plans to leave the commission entirely at the end of October.

Buerkle cast her vote for Adler. She explained her decision to cross party lines in a statement that said she felt it was important for the next acting agency head to “be the most experienced, most senior commissioner who has previously served in this role.”

“Consumer protection is not political,” Buerkle added.

How the rest of the commission voted is set to be announced Wednesday, when the vote will be finalized.

Adler’s election is unlikely to drastically change the direction of the agency. His powers as acting chairman will be moderated by a commission that — with Buerkle’s departure — will have a 2-2 Democratic-Republican split until the White House nominates and the Senate confirms a new fifth member.

The race to replace Buerkle has led to weeks of speculation. Republican commissioners Dana Baiocco and Peter Feldman both came to the CPSC just last year. And their relationship with Buerkle was at times tense, leading to clashes at public meetings.

Adler has been a commissioner since 2009 and has worked at the CPSC off and on since shortly after it was created in the early 1970s.

Buerkle took over as chairwoman in early 2017. Her departure comes after a Washington Post investigation into how the CPSC reacted to products that killed and injured children.

Late last year, Buerkle voted to allow Britax to avoid a safety recall after nearly 100 parents and children were injured when the front wheels on their BOB jogging strollers came off. The settlement — which passed along party lines 3 to 2 — ended a CPSC lawsuit that sought to force Britax to recall the strollers. The Post found that Buerkle kept Democratic commissioners in the dark about the stroller investigation and then helped end the case in court.

She also led the CPSC when the agency was criticized for its handling of Fisher-Price’s popular Rock ‘n Play inclined infant sleeper. Despite concerns about the product’s safety, it was recalled only after Consumer Reports revealed that the Rock ‘n Play was tied to 32 infant deaths, three times more than the agency had previously publicly acknowledged. A Washington Post article showed how Fisher-Price invented the inclined sleeper category based on faulty beliefs about infant sleep and without medical safety testing or input from a pediatrician.

This summer, the agency was criticized for failing to warn about the risk of children getting crushed to death in home elevator accidents, which was the subject of another Post article.

The agency faces a number of inquires from Congress looking into its handling of these issues.