Wednesday, January 6, 2010

CPSIA - Transparency, Tenenbaum/Adler-style!

In a truly creepy decision today, the Democrat-dominated CPSC Commission today voted down Anne Northup's motion to have a public debate of the agency's recommended changes to the CPSIA. The vote was 2-2 along party lines. [Party affiliation should NEVER be predictive of positions on safety.] By this vote, the Commission ensures that there will be no public airing of views on the agency's recommendations for amending the awful CPSIA before their report to Congress is due on January 15 (see below). Apparently, the general public's interest in understanding this critical debate was deemed by the Democrats to be a low priority.

It is ironic that the Democrats would choose to spurn the Government in the Sunshine Act ("Sunshine Act") so brazenly. The decision to leave Northup's item off the upcoming meeting agenda is not technically a violation of the Sunshine Act, but then again it is certainly NOT on the list of exceptions to the public meeting rule (5 U.S.C. 552(b)(c)). In my humble opinion, it is a clear violation of the spirit of the Sunshine Act and can hardly be characterized as "transparent" government. As Ms. Northup noted, the sponsors of the Sunshine Act would be appalled. So why did the Dems do it?

Before I recap and analyze of this incredible event, I would like to quote Inez Tenenbaum on the importance of "transparency" (emphasis added):
  • CPSC Press Release (July 9, 2009): "Ms. Tenenbaum identified three major areas of focus for her common sense approach to serving as Chairman. 'First, I want CPSC to be more accessible and transparent to parents and consumers. By creating an electronic database of product incident reports that consumers can search and by collaborating with state and local agencies and consumer groups, we can give the public confidence that CPSC is working openly and in their best interest,' she stated."
  • APEC Conference Keynote Address (August 1, 2009): "My regulatory philosophy embraces open dialogue, information sharing with all stakeholders, and a commitment to finding mutual interests. . . . Enforcement is actually one of my three top priorities as Chairman, along with government transparency and consumer education and advocacy."
  • Statement Before the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection (September 10, 2009): "In my first two months leading the CPSC, I have focused on three key goals: transparency and openness to those we serve . . . ."
  • Keynote Address, 3rd CPSC-AQSIQ Safety Summit (October 21, 2009): "I embrace open government, information sharing with all stakeholders, and a commitment to finding mutual interests."
With Ms. Tenenbaum's apparent commitment to "transparency", it should not be surprising that she originally moved to add an agenda item to discuss this very topic (apparently for today's brief meeting), and then somehow the decision was voted down 3-1, presumably Tenenbaum, Moore and Adler voting against, Northup voting for, and Nord on leave (she's back now). [I cannot find any record of this vote on the "wonderful" CPSC website and gave up, sorry.] So at one time at least, Tenenbaum was publicly calling for a public discussion of five Commissioners on this critical subject.

One must wonder who spoke to whom to get this flip flop accomplished. Assuming Ms. Tenenbaum meant what she said publicly about the need for "transparency", someone must have really put a wet blanket on the idea of publicly discussing this subject. I wonder who might have strong views on the wisdom of an unstaged, open discussion of these issues . . . .

Consider Ms. Northup's argument: This is one of the most critical issues to come before the Commission. The CPSIA has been controversial and difficult to work with two years now. The Appropriations Committee has asked us to give recommendations on how to change to the law. [See this link, pp. 33-34 for the actual instructions.] There is no disagreement that blood lead levels need to be a top priority in children's safety but none of the CDC, NIH or EPA point to children's products as a serious lead threat. The Sunshine Act prevents the Commissioners from meeting other than one-on-one without calling a public meeting, which means we can never sit down together to discuss these issues. The issues are too important to relegate to a game of "telephone". A hearing is the only way for the five of us to discuss this issue at one time.

Tenenbaum's response was telling: The Staff has been working night and day on this and everyone has had a chance to put in their comments. Each Commissioner has had some drafting responsibility. Each Commissioner has the right to submit their own statement to Congress and likewise to request to testify to present their own personal views. Given our ability to have "extensive discussions" one-on-one, this debate is best held in private. We should NOT have a public hearing on this subject.

Okay, are you persuaded? This is coming from Ms. Transparency, to judge from her many uses of that old chestnut in various speeches and testimony.

Nancy Nord made the point that the reason to have a Commission is to meet publicly and have discussions openly and transparently. Apparently this didn't persuade the Dems. Bob Adler amplified the "argument" against trusting the American public to listen in to the debate: After conceding that he would sound like the "Prince of Darkness", he stated that an open Commission hearing should involve give-and-take but a hearing on this topic would not involve deliberation but instead speeches telling him why he's wrong and the others are right. He said he was very comfortable with the current process because he knows everyone's views quite well and besides, so does the public via blogs, tweets, statements and so on. The minority Commissioners are not being "squelched". He said that a public meeting removes the ability to think out loud. "As soon as you say it [in a public meeting], it's all over the blogosphere." [Thanks for the plug, Bob.]

So what does this MEAN? A few thoughts:

- The Dems don't want to allow an unruly public debate of the issues - why? There are several possible reasons - (a) they have been told a public debate is "not a good idea" by Congressional Dems who have consistently refused to hold public hearings, (b) they have been told that many/most changes are "non-starters" by Guess Who so don't even think about suggesting them, or (c) they don't want to defend their views publicly because . . . there is no way to put a good face on their views.

- The Dems were outfoxed today. By putting up the request to discuss this subject publicly, the Republicans forced their fellow Democratic Commissions to stand up publicly - before you, the general public - and try to defend "smoke filled room" politics. Now that's "Change We Can Believe In!" In other words, they were caught between a rock and a hard place - their Congressional handlers said "no way" and to get this result, they had to publicly wave their arms and try to convince us that secrecy is somehow openness. The Dems can NEVER again say they are all about transparency. If they do, they will expose themselves as being all about . . . something else.

- The "commitment" of the Commission to find middle ground and vote more cohesively as a group, which they achieved after considerable effort on the recent Stay decision (lead testing and certification), is apparently paper-thin. Ms. Tenenbaum obviously knew of Ms. Northup's motion ahead of the meeting today (she had her response drafted in advance). [Did anyone else catch the chill in the air during the meeting?] So, if they all knew this was coming, where was that commitment to work together? To consider everyone's views? Forget it. It's also hardly an advertisement for the ability of the Chairman to steer this group.

- The illusion that this government cares about the mess it made or is making any reasonable effort to fix it has been blown up. The game is fixed and has been fixed from the get-go. You need only read the Appropriations conferee report (link above). The Democrats control both Houses of Congress - so this statement was written by Democrats: "The CPSIA was signed into law on August 14,2008 and is considered to be the most significant piece of consumer protection legislation enacted since the CPSC was established in the early 1970s. The legislation received nearly unanimous bipartisan support in Congress. Congress passed this legislation in the wake of a massive number of consumer product recalls in 2007 and 2008--more than 20 million-many of which involved toys manufactured in China. The conferees strongly support this legislation but are aware of concerns surrounding implementation of certain aspects of the law." Of course, I have already documented that 43 Senators and 96 Members of the House have either sponsored or voted for CPSIA amendment legislation. It's a complete mischaracterization of the current reality - but when read by Ms. Tenenbaum into the record during the meeting today, it almost sounded true . . . .

This process is some sort of Kabuki Theater for your amusement. Having fun yet?

Today's decision is par for the course in a twisted, bass-ackwards debate over safety characterized by ideologues out to steal our legal system, bureaucrats devastating markets that they simply do not understand, regulators witnessing the destruction of their agency to serve a small number of Congressional "masters" with a broad, world-changing agenda. To propel it along, the Dems now propose to shield their work under the cloak of darkness. Does it really matter? Well, Bob Adler already knows what everyone thinks and doesn't care to be told he is wrong (and others are right). So I guess it really doesn't matter. His mind is made up, Waxman's mind is made up - and no one cares what you think.

So, when you have to let a few more people go to cover ridiculous testing costs or to pay your lawyer extortionate fees to keep you on the straight and narrow, or when you cut your product line or drop some customers to find profit elsewhere, just remember: the Democrats on the Commission thought it would be best to have the debate on the CPSIA one-on-one in private, rather than let you understand their views or participate in an open hearing.

Just remember that . . . on November 2, 2010.


jennifer said...

so disappointing...again. i am not normally a spiteful person but cpsia has changed that. tenenbaum is a waxman parrot and doesn't know the first thing about transparency. the only time she exhibits any reaction is when it has to do with politics.

i will enjoy voting much differently in the next election along with many others.

Anonymous said...

this entire process has been an amazing open door on all the things that ae clearly wrong in Washington DC.

i consider myself an independent leaning democrat and have voted such for years. i won't be able to do it next fall.

Anonymous said...

Its a shame since the CPSC has started recently to move toward transparent and open hearings. But being transparent only when it is convenient means you are not being transparent at all.

Adler has a point that folks already know (more or less) the various perspectives of each Commissioner (except perhaps the silent Commissioner Moore). But more compelling are the comments by Nord and Northup that we have yet to see this issue debated and discussed at the same time by all five Commissioners. And perspectives and opinions often get shaped and evolve when folks can debate and discuss an issue. The fact that unknown staffers have discussed this at 11pm at night should not be accepted as a substitute for open discussion among Commissioners. They miss a huge opportunity to have this discussion.

Ironically, this problem occurs as the Congress avoids a key transparency step as they work on the health care bill.

When will folks understand that process matters almost as important as policies. If you short circuit the process (as is happening here and in health care), the public grows distrustful of the end result.

Anonymous said...

Hey Rick

Great post.

I just heard the comments. Chair Tenenbaum stated her hope that each Commissioner can testify before Congress on this issue. I wonder if that will be part of the recommendations the CPSC makes and if Congress will take that up.