Disclaimer: I am in a bit of a rush today, but wanted to get this out to you. I normally give you quotes and citations, but today am working on a deadline. If I get a small detail wrong, my apologies - please correct me. I will try not to put the wrong words in people's mouths . . . .
PLEASE NOTE THAT I HAVE ADDED A POSTSCRIPT TO THIS ESSAY (11-5-09).
As expected today, the CPSC Commission rejected the petition of Learning Curve to exempt brass bushings in the wheel assemblies of its toy cars. I have written about this several times in recent weeks, most recently issuing my own "ruling". This innocent request was a loser from the start, not because of any safety issue but because of a very rigid and technical law that caught up brass bushings in its terrible web.
Some quick comments and tidbits:
a. Anne Northup emerged as the beacon of rationality in this debate, constructively offering a lawyer's argument that the word "any" means de minimus amounts of lead, not none. She pointed out that Congress okayed 300 ppm lead content in substrate suggesting that it considered some amount of lead to be tolerable. Adler called this analysis "brilliant" but disagreed with it, contending that the clear meaning of the word "any" is . . . "any". [The word "any" is critical to derive meaning from Section 101(b), the lead exemption section of the CPSIA. He also pointed out that the precedent in prior Commission decisions is that "any" means "any". [Who knew they'd read all those old decisions anyhow?!] Mr. Adler dipped into the consumer group handbook and stressed the health dangers of lead and repeated the "no safe level of lead" mantra. [It is hard to defend lead, and I have no intention of doing so, but as a matter of science, I think this is flat out wrong. Aside from the fact that we all consume lead by breathing, eating and drinking every day and must therefore being slowly poisoned with the government's apparent permission, toxicologists will tell you that the dose makes the poison. Thus, there are in fact safe levels for lead, notwithstanding that lead is a known neurotoxin.]
I agree with Adler's legal analysis and support reading the law using the plain English meaning of the words. I prefer the OUTCOME offered by Northup, but a rational set of laws depends on use of the plain meaning of the words. I am also supportive of respecting precedent if we want to maintain a sense of the Rule of Law. So . . . this means we are stuck with this awful law and its awful strictures until it is amended.
b. I wasn't the only one who realized that Congress needs to get engaged for the Commission to emerge from this corner. The debate on this topic was vigorous and fascinating. I recommend that you check out the video at your convenience. Adler pointed out that the language of the law is stringent ("rarely seen anything this emphatic"), intentionally so. Nord expressed severe reservations over this removal of discretion, noting that the CPSC is "the expert agency".
Nord and Northup wanted the vote on the LCI petition delayed or enforcement stayed until the CPSC could seek guidance from Congress or feedback from OMB. Adler would have none of it. He cited the super-majority that voted for the law and expressed the view that Congress didn't need to hear from the CPSC on this subject because of its decisive action. There were echoes in Adler's argument of assertions by House staffers that the CPSIA didn't need amendment because of its "perfect legislative process", implying an all-knowing, never incorrect or regretful Congress. He said Congress "shot real bullets" and went so far as to state that not only would Congress refuse to act if CPSC approached it, but that it might actually harden its stance ESPECIALLY if the CPSC reached out. In other words, according to Adler, going to the Hill to get relief or guidance might not make things better, it might antagonize them and make things worse. Believe it or not.
c. Northup noted that she was the only Commissioner who has served in Congress and confirmed . . . (are you sitting down?) that some members of Congress do not master every nuance of every bill. Some might not read the bills at all. OMG! Anyhow, she says that the exemption section was likely considered by members of Congress voting for the CPSIA to be a real, if stringent, exemption process, not the inert and impotent process that it has become. This argument did not seem to persuade Adler or Tenenbaum. Adler said he had seen no indication yet that Congress was interested in changes to the law. This got a hot reply from Nord who offered him her file of letters from members of Congress asking for change in the law (including a letter from Senator Klobuchar (MN) specifically on the point of the meaning of "any").
The meeting veered off in a schizophrenic direction at the end when Northup and Nord asked for a public debate to be scheduled on the meaning of this precedent and its far reaching implications. Adler replied that he wanted to see their "letter" because he said he might be "very sympathetic".
I found this last exchange extremely confusing. Adler gave me the impression of speaking out of both sides of his mouth. Tenenbaum remained basically silent, which was disappointing, given the importance of this decision and of her leadership role on the Commission. She can provide more leadership to this group than by simply presiding over the meeting. A lack of coordination among the Commissioners or perhaps off-line dialogue seems to be missing. In any event, I may be some kind of political idiot but the Commission's strategy or even the thinking about how to resolve this terrible impasse is not apparent to me. For them to reject the LCI petition (voted down 3-2, with the deciding vote cast by a MIA Thomas Moore), refuse the opportunity to kick the can down the road by asking Congress for guidance and then to seem interested in reaching out in some way anyhow, left me utterly confused. Should we trust them to guide us home, or are they lost, too? What's the path forward, and why won't they 'fess up to both their problems and their strategy? What happens next and who will protect us? These are troubling questions.
The business community will be understandably horrified and demoralized by this decision. The strict interpretation of the CPSIA has now been blessed by a full Commission. They have hardened on the plain meaning of the law. While the Rule of Law has been upheld, and that's a good thing, it also means that the worst parts of the law will be respected, too. Thus, the economic destruction that we have been predicting based on the plain meaning of the law was given a boost today by the Commission. If you want to see the future, read the law. It's all in there. Until proven otherwise, this Commission has yet to signal an interest in going across town to talk to Mr. Waxman and his lot.
Interesting Side bar: Learning Curve apparently brazenly and openly continued to sell these items during the pendency of this petition. That risky strategy involved knowingly selling a product that they believed was illegal (that's why they asked for an exemption). That's a no-no, although it had no safety consequences for anyone (as acknowledged by CPSC Staff and certain Commissioners in today's debate). Notably, Mr. Adler asserted that the CPSC Staff would let their own kids play with these cars even if the kids' blood lead levels were right at some sort of hypothetical lead "tipping point" - in other words, the cars are perfectly safe, no point denying it. Nevertheless, Mr. Adler upbraided LCI for this procedural faux pas. He cited them for bad "optics".
Bad optics - after today's decision, I think that's something for the Commission to think about.
POSTSCRIPT - Mr. Adler retracted his accusation of LCI above. Please see this blogpost for details.