Monday, March 21, 2011

CPSIA - Answers to Supplemental House Questions (Hearing of Feb. 17th)

This is my Response for the Record to questions posed by Rep. Mike Pompeo after the February 17th hearing held by the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade:

February 17, 2011
Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade Subcommittee:
“A Review of CPSIA and CPSC Resources"

Congressman Mike Pompeo

1. Did your company have to buy a copy of the F-963 standard? Why? How much did that cost?

Our company has purchased several copies of ASTM F963 over the years. According to the ASTM International website (, the current cost of F963 is $62, or $74 (redline version). [This means that the ASTM literally charges companies EXTRA to figure out what changed in this legally-mandated standard.] To my knowledge, this standard is only available from the ASTM. Ironically, even the CPSC is unable to provide access to this document (as acknowledged in this CPSC Powerpoint presentation which casts doubt on its ability to guide companies attempting to comply with the law. The lack of access and cost of access to this standard certainly makes compliance burdensome for small businesses.

The F963 standard has been updated regularly over the years, and we need to have access to the current version of the standard at all times. Until the CPSIA was enacted, the F963 standard was the tacit equivalent of a mandatory standard because the toy industry adopted it as a “voluntary” standard with the encouragement of the CPSC. At one time, voluntary standards were the preferred way the agency regulated many industries, including our industry. We have always used the F963 standard as a reference in product development and safety administration and frequently tested for compliance with the standard.

2. You’ve been dealing with all of the agency’s rules for the last few years. By my reckoning, an entrepreneur with, say, a good idea for a board game would have to pay to buy a copy of F-963 from ASTM (not a small price to pay for some small or start-up toymakers). Then, because the standard is literally dozens of pages long of densely spaced text, he’d have to hire a lawyer to tell which parts of the standard apply to his product. Then, he’d have to find a third-party test lab to test and certify a random sample of his actual production line for compliance with all of the F-963 requirements. And, if any product fails, you are basically back to the drawing board. And, of course, he’d have to do all this before ever selling a single toy. Do you think the next board game entrepreneur (e.g., Trivial Pursuit) might have a hard time getting off the ground under this regime? Has this agency effectively killed entrepreneurship in the toy market? Does a start-up company stand any chance of being able to navigate the CPSC’s new rules and regulations on its own?

The CPSIA has had the effective of creating new barriers of entry in the children’s product market, once one of America’s most entrepreneurial industries. The burdens are heavy in the toy industry but even worse in related industries like juvenile products. Large companies with steady cash flow enjoy considerable and valuable advantages over entrepreneurs who must put large sums of money at risk in their initial investment in compliance costs before receiving their first dollar of revenue. The effect of the CPSIA is one of picking winners and losers in affected markets. I question whether this is the appropriate role of the federal government in our markets.

We believe that these heavy costs will discourage investment in new products, by new entrants, by existing players and especially by small businesses. Recently, at the CPSC’s hearing on the looming 100 ppm lead standard, representatives of the bicycle industry noted that in the wake of the 300 ppm lead standard, many small bicycle manufacturers have already left the market and large companies cut their product lines considerably. I have long predicted a reduction in product diversity as a necessary consequence of the CPSIA. Other evidence of market contraction exists, as well. At this year’s ICPHSO, CPSC Acting Director of the Office of Compliance and Field Operations Robert (“Jay”) Howell noted the CPSC’s challenge in identifying a test lab that has or will agree to equip itself as a certified test lab for ATVs. Why? So many ATV manufacturers have stopped producing youth model ATVs under the effective ban by the CPSIA’s lead standards that testing labs can’t justify the capital investment to provide CPSIA compliance testing. Product diversity is declining all over the children’s product market.

Toymakers will experience the same depressing effect and yes, that means that the next Trivial Pursuit inventor may be washed out. We may never know because the absence of a new toy or novel game will be hard to detect in the ad-driven, promotional toy market. It is clear, however, that entrepreneurs are free to deploy their capital wherever they want – they are seeking returns on their capital - so the combination of high CPSIA compliance costs, high regulatory risk, high legal costs and a generally hostile regulatory environment seems unlikely to attract new entrants to the toy market. War stories will also discourage new entrants – the well-known experience of toymakers who have suffered under this regulatory regime.

As a practical matter, the rules and regulations put out by the CPSC to implement the CPSIA for toys are incomprehensible, not to mention incomplete. We are now 31 months into the CPSIA era, yet the CPSC has yet to promulgate a final phthalate standard or certify even one phthalates testing lab. EACH and EVERY toy must be “phthalate-free” but the CPSC has yet to tell us how to know it has achieved this goal. This means we are subject to the risk that they will invalidate all the work we have done since 2008. While this regulatory delay is simply outrageous, it is more likely proof of the defects in the CPSIA than a sign of failure by the CPSC. Even the largest companies have complained to the CPSC about the blizzard of rules and interpretations. One of great frustrations in attempting to comply with the new rules is that many CPSC legal interpretations have been given in private letters, orally in speeches or even in the form of voicemails. Access to such information may be critical but is obviously inaccessible to anyone not obsessively watching every minute of every video, reading every letter, attending every meeting or hearing and talking to every stakeholder in an attempt to master the breadth of this ever-morphing regulatory scheme.

3. Does the existence of a small business ombudsman at the agency solve the compliance problem?

The office of the Small Business Ombudsman serves a useful purpose as a friendly point of contact and possible advocate for small business within the agency. That said, there is no evidence that the office has power to make decisions, change policy or offer its own definitive interpretation of rules. For small businesses totally at a loss, the ombudsman is a good place to turn to for plain English answers to basic questions about rules. Notably, the office is not permitted to make decisions on behalf of the agency. The Ombudsman does not have the authority to make problems “go away”. For this reason, the ombudsman function appears to be the regulatory equivalent of a shoulder to cry on. The current ombudsman, Neil Cohen, has been a good friend to the small business community, but unfortunately, he doesn’t write the rules.

4. What problems do you anticipate occurring as a result of the public database?

We know that the public database will be administered on a post-it-and-forget-it basis. Based on our dealings with the agency, I believe that the agency will post all incidents unless a mistaken identity can be proven. As a consequence, we anticipate that the database will be allowed to be filled up with “incidents” that are conjectural, misleading or even proven WRONG. In the first and only filing against our company, an anonymous complaint accused one of our products of posing a small parts hazard. That accusation was based on an image viewed on a website – there is no indication that the filer had ever handled our product. Consequently, the filer had no reasonable basis for the small parts claim. As a matter of fact, we routinely test for small parts and have done so for years, and when we presented a valid CPSIA test report under F963 (and EN71, the European standard), we were told by the General Counsel of the CPSC that the claim would nevertheless be eligible to be published under current rules. Thus, we KNOW that the false and misleading filings will KNOWINGLY be published by the CPSC even if PROVEN false. We believe this flagrantly violates our basic right to due process and creates the potential for damaging “feeding frenzies” that can consume our products and brands.

Other claims may relate to “hazards” which affect a wide swath of products already well-known by regulators and industry. This presents many risks to industry and to brands. What will a consumer make of a "report of harm" relating to a general hazard and only one particular product? Is this a minor incident or a harbinger of a real risk? Should they stop using the product? Should they stop using the particular model or brand which is subject of the complaint? Given that many products may present the same hazard (for instance, that an electrical cord could pose a strangulation hazard), how does this information help consumers? Will consumers actually understand the issue and be able to put it into some sort of perspective? And when incidents accumulate, as they are likely to do, presumably the brands and models with the largest numbers in distribution will have more incidents even though, ironically, they may be better constructed and "safer" than the alternatives. Will consumers falsely conclude that the models with more incidents are less safe and turn to something that really is?

Responding to this type of complaint obviously creates a new and terrible dilemma for manufacturers. Should they expend resources to respond? Do they need to lay out "a brief" about the nature of the failure and why their product is named? Will people just view whatever they say as unreliable, self-serving information or will they really be able to internalize the data? As noted above, most people will not be able to put these incidents in any kind of perspective. The only thing we know for certain is that brands and companies will be the losers.

The public portrayal of the database belies the unverified nature of the filings. Notwithstanding the disclaimers made by the agency, even esteemed media outlets like The New York Times refer to the database as a “database of unsafe products”. Unsafe? That label presumes some kind of judgment or filter prior to filing, which even The New York Times must assume is being provided by the CPSC. Ironically, the CPSC is doing everything possible to avoid providing that service. The result may be disastrous for American manufacturers, importers, private labelers and retailers of children’s products. It will be yet another self-inflicted economic injury.

5. What can Congress do to return the agency to one that regulates on the basis of risk?

Congress should mandate that the CPSC use principles of risk assessment to make all decisions relating to regulation of children’s products. The legislatively-mandated use of judgment and proportionality will likely lead to better rulemaking and more regulatory common sense. It is the legislative banishing of the exercise of judgment that led to the devastation of the bicycle industry, the elimination of youth model ATVs from the market (even though those products owe their very existence to a concerted effort by the CPSC to protect children from injury on adult-sized ATVs), the banning of all products made of brass, the senseless and almost neurotic banning of rhinestones as embellishments on children’s clothing, shoes and jewelry, and so on. NONE of these changes in rules have been tied to even ONE avoided injury.

Congress should also mandate the use of principles of cost-benefit analysis by the agency in its rulemaking processes. Under the CPSIA, all considerations of economics have flown out the window with predictably disastrous results. We can operate our government better according to basic common sense notions of cost-benefit analysis.

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