The CPSC Commission issued its January 15 Congressional report on recommended changes to the CPSIA last Friday. As promised by Inez Tenenbaum, the Commissioners were afforded the opportunity to present individual statements to accompany the Commission report. Four of the Commissioners (Tenenbaum, Adler, Nord and Northup) chose to present their own statements. Adler also promised a supplemental statement on the subject of lead, which has not been released yet to my knowledge.
The Report and the accompanying statements make interesting reading. I do not propose to summarize the documents here, but have set out a few thoughts:
a. The Commission's Consensus is Important. The Commissioners made a big effort to speak with one voice in the report. While they certainly did not agree on everything, their effort to achieve bipartisanship agreement in the report sends a good message. The Commission needs to work harder to find this middle ground more consistently and less fractiously. There is NO JUSTIFICATION for turning safety into a game of political football. If the Commission can work better together, confidence in their administration will grow and extremes will be avoided.
The prohibition against full Commission meetings in private (the Sunshine Act) is a hidden factor in the report. Since the Commission ill-advisedly voted down a public discussion of the report, the Commissioners were prevented from meeting in groups of three, four or five. When you read this report, imagine how it might have read if the five Commissioners were allowed to sit in a room and duke it out. It might have been a better document, more complete and more prescriptive.
b. Where's the Functional Purpose Exception??? The report is as interesting for what it DOESN'T say as for what it does say. Most importantly, the functional purpose exemption is GONE. Rumorville has it that the functional purpose exception became more and more ornate and complex as the Commissioners struggled to write a recommendation until even its most ardent supporters had to concede that it wasn't going to work. This was set up to be Waxman's excuse to do nothing or nearly nothing. It's not there anymore.
Too bad for Henry, huh?
c. The Commissioners' Statements Reveal that Common Sense is Divided on Party Lines. The Commissioners' statements reveal a lack of communication within the Commission. I know they were talking but it appears that some messages weren't being heard. The statements of the two Democrats (Moore apparently did not prepare a statement) were straight out of Central Casting. Disappointingly, Ms. Tenenbaum chose to repeat a fairy tale about the law's origins:
"In response to the flood of dangerous imported products, which were involved in tragic fatalities, poisonings and injuries involving children, Congress closely examined the needs of the CPSC and the statutory changes necessary to enhance the regulatory safety net maintained by the agency. Congress spent considerable time reviewing these needs and continually consulted with the agency’s leaders, staff, consumer groups, and the regulated community in order to carefully craft the proper legislation to achieve this end. Seeing a clear need to reauthorize and reinvigorate CPSC with new energy and purpose, Congress passed a sweeping law." [Emphasis added]
The re-characterization of what was essentially an anger-fueled legislative mania into some sort of group hug is apparently the Democrats' effort to justify a passive or inert approach to fixing the law. In addition, both Tenenbaum and Adler repeated the misleading togline about the dangers of lead, although I don't think that's news anymore. It's also not really relevant to discussing the issues under the law - and their persistent refusal to acknowledge this is disappointing.
The Republicans (Nord and Northup) delivered rational and balanced statements that calmly and appropriately diagnosed the issues with the law. They are cognizant of the excesses of the law, the dramatic impact on both the regulated community and the hobbled agency itself. The Reps make no effort to prop up the CPSIA - you know, the law passed by REPUBLICANS AND DEMOCRATS ALIKE. There's no pride of authorship by the Reps - to their credit, these Commissioners seem to be trying to restore a rational system of law and regulation designed to provide appropriate levels of safety at an affordable cost.
I am tired of the Dems on the Commission simply being good Dem soldiers rather than committed stewards of safety. The ANGER expressed in Massachusetts today is a strong message to the Dems - America is sick and tired of government aggressively inserting itself into every aspect of our lives, including by way of the CPSIA and its precautionary principle. See tonight's Wall Street Journal for more details. It will be interesting to see if Massachusetts impacts the CPSIA amendment process.
d. Does it Matter What's Safe Anymore? I am struck again by the absurdity of the debate over lead. As I see it, the debate is over which incidents of lead that are illegal should be permitted. This is different from defining what constitutes safe lead. This used to be a simple decision. Now the premise is that there is NO safe level of lead. Is that really TRUE?
Think of ALL cases where lead is found in children's products. Now separate them into two piles, one that is labeled "safe" and one that is labeled "not safe". How do these piles compare to the piles made by the CPSIA, FHSA and CPSA? Well, that question never comes up in the debate. The big question is about compliance with law, not safety.
This is not a rational system for administering risk. First of all, if lead were so deadly that it needed to be eliminated in all cases in all children's products, then presumably we would be even MORE motivated to remove it from our food, water and air (not to mention dirt). After all, we consume food etc. and the lead in the food gets into our bloodstreams. But this isn't an issue today because the CPSIA didn't make it illegal - and apparently the CPSC does not feel lead is dangerous in food, water or air (or else it would have acted on the threat under the FHSA). It gets worse - consider that lead paint is illegal on children's products but not on cars. If lead is so dangerous and mere contact with lead-in-substrate is so dangerous that it is utterly intolerable in a modern, sophisticated society likes ours, then why does the CPSC permit kids to touch or even ride in cars? After all, the zipper pull on a kid's golf bag is illegal if it has a dot of lead paint on it. But a whole car dripping with lead paint, that's fine.
The answer - it doesn't matter what's safe when it comes to lead, it only matters what's legal. The Dems prefer to portray what's illegal as unsafe, and imply that what's legal is safe. [Call this the All-Knowing Congress argument.] It's hard to take this seriously. It's time for them to drop the precautionary principle pretense and start being accountable for the rationality of their regulatory positions. If lead is a crisis as they say, then please ban everything with lead in it, including our entire food chain. I am ready to be safe, finally.
e. What Has Been Accomplished in the Last 18 Months??? Does it bother you as much as me that so little has been accomplished by the last 18 months of chaos? The many steps and achievements documented in the report and statements might make a bureaucrat blush with pride but how have injury statistics changed? [Recall statistics are a poor measure of the effectiveness of safety rules.] How much did we pay as a society for these extremely meager achievements? If you add in the cost to our society of a crippled safety agency, the price we paid is staggering. The waste is sickening. It's not possible for me to read the recounting without a sense of loss.
f. Does Anyone Else Want An Exemption? Umm, Yeah! It's important to note that the low number of exemption requests does not reflect a lack of interest in exemptions. Exemption requests are very expensive to prepare and are complex. In many cases, the exemption request will obviously be rejected or is too broad to state in any compelling way. For instance, educational products span so many categories that it is impossible to state a coherent exemption request. More importantly, the real inhibition to filing is a fear of losing the request. For many companies, it just doesn't pay to ask for permission - they prefer to beg for forgiveness if a problem ever arises.
Anne Northup correctly notes in her statement that it is bad law to require that regulated companies line up for exemptions. She is not arguing on behalf of the companies - she focuses on the huge burden these requests place on the CPSC and the Commission. She is TOTALLY correct. The idea that we should have a safety system based on exceptions would only appeal to the IRS. Somebody needs to listen to Northup on this point.
g. The Report Whitewashes Ineffective Help for Resale Shops. It is a sad joke to assert that coaching resale shops with the CPSC's guidance document and a few workshops is somehow a solution to the massive problem caused by the CPSIA. For one thing, it is quite clear that this message has not reached its audience. The CPSC's approach is inherently inefficient and unlikely to bring relief to many affected stores. A better law is the necessary solution. Second, it is apparent that the CPSC's efforts did not relieve anxiety - the stores are still dropping children's items. This lack of accountability begins to look cynical when you consider that only last week, Scott Wolfson was warning people not to sell cheap jewelry on auction sites or in resale shops. Hmmm, that sounds very reassuring, doesn't it? Problem solved!
If the Commission truly cares about resale shops, then a more effective approach (including a communication strategy) needs to be implemented.
With the issuance of the report and statements, the shuttlecock has been batted back to Congress. The next step is to work on a long-needed amendment of this awful law. Stay tuned.