Thursday, December 17, 2009

CPSIA - The Votes Are In . . . (The Stay Was Extended)

The CPSC Commission ballot votes were announced today with the five Commissioners' statements released as well (Adler, Moore, Nord, Northup, Tenenbaum). The Commission made three decisions:
  1. Adopted the interim enforcement policy allowing the use of component tests (5-0)
  2. Lifted the stay on testing for bike helmets, dive sticks, bunk beds, and rattles (5-0)
  3. Extended the stay on testing for lead content to February 10, 2011 "date certain" (4-1, Adler dissenting)

These votes reflect a considerable effort by the Commission to pull together. Other than Mr. Adler's principled decision to opt out of the endorsement of a longer extension of the stay on lead content, the Commission managed to find common ground. The unification of the Commission, if it sticks, would be a positive development. I hope this is a sign of recognition that safety is not inherently political and therefore Democrats and Republicans can work cooperatively and productively together.

The extended stay ("Stay") will be of value to manufacturers without endangering consumers. This is helpful . . . but is not a complete solution. It's a compromise and may have to be revisited again. I believe the Commission was not able to agree on Ms. Northup's formulation of the extension (six months after the issuance of the so-called "15 Month Rule") because Mr. Adler's objected to it as too open-ended and expressed a concern that it might be pushed out indefinitely. So now we have a stay expiring on a "date certain" and an agency with another artificial deadline to meet. The 15 Month Rule was not made an explicit condition of the decision, which means that more market chaos is probable.

Let's step back at this point and think about the issues that this vote raises:

A. The notion that another year will be enough to tidy up the details on lead content is probably a pipe dream. A few points of reference:

  • Today is the one year anniversary of my first comment letter on civil penalty factors. When they finally came out in September, I sent in a second comment letter. To date, the new penalty factors have not been announced. We are in our second year of waiting.
  • The phthalate test standards are also in limbo. The agency has had two cracks at that one. The first one allowed testing of the entire product as a single part (based on statutory interpretation) and after a storm of protest from among others the CA AG, the CPSC reversed course and reissued the test standard requiring that each component, even internal inaccessible ones, be individually tested. No doubt this pleased Jerry Brown, candidate for governor of California, but it created (brace for it . . . ) another storm of protest. Yet more comment letters were submitted. And . . . nothing. Please NOTE that the phthalate ban was SO urgent that the CPSC allowed it to become effective RETROACTIVELY with exactly TWO BUSINESS DAYS NOTICE. Obviously, phthalates must be a serious problem right??? Well, the CPSC has twice investigated phthalates and given them a pass both times. A third CHAP is currently grinding away. You get the picture. Hurry up and wait - just like the Army.
  • On January 30, Nancy Nord issued her statement in support of the original stay. In that letter, she called for the issuance of the component testing rule. Have you seen it yet? The interim enforcement policy is the closest thing we have to a component testing rule. The birthday party for Ms. Nord's call to action is about a month away. Get the cake ready.

I am skeptical that the "15 Month Rule" will come out anytime soon. As Ms. Northup notes, it is going to be wickedly complicated. EVERY such rule when issued has been a major speed bump in the implementation process. See above . . . . The CPSC is also not without its other challenges or little projects. There is, of course, the day-to-day business of the agency like hunting for shoes with lead-infused insoles. There are also unexpected emergencies like Chinese drywall. And then there's that endless time sink, the CPSIA, with its many unfolding requirements. Why just today, the CPSC announced yet another two-day workshop on the public database. Didn't we just have a hearing on this? Perhaps I should buy a condo in Washington . . . . Anyhow, these other obligations will get in the way of the master plan here. That's a certainty.

The consequences of these artificial deadlines for businesses are pretty severe. Our problems are largely with the "regulatory compliance exuberance" of our larger and more risk-averse dealers/retailers. This risk-aversion is principally driven by the excessive liability of the new law and the apparent predilection of the CPSC to hand out whopping fines. It is also related to speculation that it is only a matter of time before the agency or one of the State AGs decides to give the felony provisions a road test. Who will be first in line? Our larger customers have no interest in finding out. This may be why we have one customer who insists on testing EVERY item for lead-in-paint . . . even if it has no paint on it. And another customer who wants us to test EVERY item for flammability, even if the products are exempt (like paper-based items).

How do you think these customers will react to a "hard" deadline on testing? With little sympathy and a great deal of advanced planning. They will not want to speculate on whether we will get relief if the CPSC runs late on something important. Likewise, they will not want to stop and start. Some companies are ALREADY incorporating the August 2011 100 ppm lead standard into their requirements NOW - even though the CPSC has made NO determination that it will impose that (ridiculous) standard yet. A one year extension of the Stay means that the testing requirements will take form for us much sooner than February 10, 2011, and once started, will be hard to stop.

B. Some of the remarks of Commissioners at the hearing and in their statements seem detached from market realities. This is worrisome. The denial by certain Commissioners of information they have been provided (Adler: "While there will be some disruption in the marketplace no matter which date is chosen, no hard evidence has been brought to my attention that would require an even longer extension of this stay than two years from the passage of this landmark legislation") and the misconstruction of the impact of their decisions (Adler: "I know of no company that has indicated that it will withhold production until the 15-month rule becomes effective.") erodes confidence.

It's time to abandon pretense and role-playing. The decisions being made have very serious consequences for many people (perhaps this is why I am still up at 1 AM writing this blog) and must be handled with the utmost sensitivity. If the Commissioners seem to be stuck in a tunnel with no end, believe me, so are manufacturers. Let's not make the situation worse - particularly since there is NO crisis to resolve right now.

C. Of particular concern to me is that the agency seems to have lost its ability to determine what is safe and what is not. Today's recall of Timberland scuffproof boots is just an illustration of our broken compass. The CPSIA's famous "precautionary principle" holds that we cannot trust anything until it is proven safe upfront. Thus, the CPSIA subjects every product and every component in every children's industry to new regulation, and requires the CPSC to carve out exceptions. This MAXIMIZES workload, chaos and confusion because it requires in-depth inquiries into EVERYTHING. This approach multiplies complexity as regulations devolve from common sense guidelines into endless lists of exceptions. Look around you - this entire mess, the last 18 months of misery and the coming months of new misery, is the inevitable outcome of this defective way to regulate our markets.

The mounting exceptions are only part of the mess. Then there are the interpretations. There is simply no way to catalog all of these decisions. Every nuance needs a regulator's okay. Ms. Northup highlights the determination that a children's water slide is NOT a "children's product" because it must be designed to withstand the weight of an adult. Very good, quite a helpful decision, but HOW are manufacturers supposed to replicate that reasoning without taking undue liability risk? Isn't it obvious that such determinations are quirky and hard to apply? The trend to greater opacity is unstoppable under this regime.

As long as we ignore this fundamental problem, we will face a worsening environment at the CPSC. The cohesiveness of this Commission today will degenerate quickly. The morale of CPSC staff will decline further. The rules and interpretations will pile high into the sky and manufacturers will start to ignore them - or just leave the marketplace for sunnier climes. Ridiculous demands of retailers for testing will drive more companies from the market or just cripple the ability of U.S. companies to compete internationally. The flaws in the CPSIA will also likely spark a consolidation trend toward bigger and bigger companies as this kind of environment is deadly to small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Not a pretty picture. Thanks Congress!

So with this stay decision, I conclude that little has been accomplished to address the basic problems. We kicked the can down the road, which is fine, but the fundamental issues remain and will pop up again in short order. Until we put them to rest, the fighting will intensify, the agency will descend into gridlock and personal reputations and legacies will be harmed.

There is no need to stand idly by and let this carnage happen. As has been pointed out by many in recent days, the CPSC needs to tell Congress honestly what needs to be done to fix the law. Mr. Waxman has conceded a fix is necessary. We need now must tell Congress where they went wrong. I disagree with Ms. Northup that the CPSIA's flaws were mysterious in July 2008 - but whether or not that's true, they are pretty obvious now.

I wish the Commissioners and all my readers a restful holiday season, but after you have had a nice nap and a chance to catch up with the relatives, it's back to work. We need to put together the list of fixes and march over to the Hill.


Michael said...

Rick, I concur wih all of your points. I am grateful for the general direction the Commissioners have moved, even if far short of fixing CPSIA, something they cannot achieve. I also find some small amount of hope in acknowledgement by Congressional members that were previously opposed to any consideration of CPSIA'a flaws that maybe there are a few corrections in order. I expect to lose significant volume in 2010 on this, but without the extension, it would have been far worse. The question becomes "how quick will Congress move?" assuming that the dooor to amendment may actually be opening. It is critical to keep the pressure on our Representatives.

David said...

I wanted to ask your opinion about your interpretation of these votes. Specifically the lack of inclusion of the other rules, bans, and standards that were part of the original stay and no longer appear to be part of the extension. Since the stay must be lifted or extended by vote, should we expect additional extensions to be forthcoming for 3rd party Phthalate and F963 testing or is your interpretation that those portions of the original stay remain effective indefinitely, until the Commission votes to lift them at a later date (after 2/10/10)?

Anonymous said...

David, I think that for children's products subject to other rules or bans the stay is lifted on a specific rule or ban 90 days after the Commission issues a "notice of requirements." So I think it does require an affirmative vote of the Commission after 2/10/10, but a vote to issue a notice of requirements on a particular rule or ban.

Rick Woldenberg, Chairman - Learning Resources Inc. said...

I believe the current plan is that future rules and requirements will be effective and binding 90 days after the rules and requirements are issued in final form. Of course, this may or may not stick, as adequate lab capacity will be required. The phthalates and F963 requirements will create QUITE the fire drill for the CPSC if they have to certify labs sufficient to cover the entire U.S. market's needs within 90 days. That's a joke, but heck, why admit it now? Time will tell, we all have to wait to see what happens.