Consumer Product Safety Commission poised to gain flexibility

A last-minute bipartisan compromise enabled Congress on the eve of a recess to provide the Consumer Product Safety Commission with greater discretion in how it regulates manufacturers.

The bill (H.R. 2715), which cleared the House and Senate on Monday and was sent to President Obama for signing, would amend some procedures set out in the controversial 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act without relaxing major health precautions.

In the standards regulating toys, bicycles and all-terrain vehicles, for example, it would apply an exceedingly low lead content requirement of only 100 parts per million as of Aug. 14, but the new rule would apply prospectively rather than retroactively. This would allow existing inventories to be brought to market by primary retailers as well as secondhand sellers.

"The CPSC chairwoman and the commissioners were unanimous in supporting this congressional help for businesses," Scott Wolfson, spokesman for the CPSC, told Government Executive.

As the advocacy group OMBWatch noted, Congress enacted the 2008 product safety law after the recall of millions of toys and products, "but the legislation proved problematic. The CPSC has struggled to implement the [act], and members on both sides of the aisle have acknowledged its unintended shortcomings."

The law was defended by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in a recent floor statement: "The Consumer Product Safety Commission, after years of atrophy due to budget cuts and neglect, has been reinvigorated and become proactive, rather than reactive," he said. "As a result, we've seen a decline in the number of children's products that have to be pulled from homes and store shelves. The agency is intercepting more dangerous products at the border."

But Waxman acknowledged the law "has some rough edges that need to be smoothed out. For example, there are some products that require a small amount of lead to maintain their strength and durability and don't pose a serious threat to public health or safety."

He worked out a compromise with, among others, Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., who had been hearing complaints from industry groups that the 2008 law was difficult to interpret and was costing jobs.

The National Association of Manufacturers, for example, in a statement issued earlier, said the law's "overly broad reach harms consumers, manufacturers and importers alike by applying the same criteria to a wide range of products, regardless of their intended use . . . By the CPSC's own account, implementing the CPSIA has overwhelmed the agency and jeopardized its ability to meet critical safety priorities."

Mack on Monday lauded passage of the bill, saying, "Today, we are striking a very careful balance. As a nation, we simply cannot afford to lose jobs or stifle innovation because of questionable regulations. But we also have an obligation to make certain that our children's toys remain safe. This bill is a win for everyone."

Ami Gadhia, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, was equally enthusiastic. "We appreciate that this bipartisan legislation protects children's health and safety while taking measured steps to address some of the claims raised by industry," she said. "This bill preserves the independent safety testing of toys and other children's products, and it maintains a robust database for people to report and find out about safety hazards. This bill preserves the core of the CPSIA, the 2008 law that was a significant victory for consumers. It provides more clarity for the Consumer Product Safety Commission to do its job."

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