We’ve been following the crescendo of stories illustrating the severe limitations of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (here, here, and here): CPSC lacks the resources to test products adequately, it can’t levy hefty enough fines to deter corporate wrongdoing, and it can announce a recall only through a news release that it negotiates with the company involved .

Now, a bill is moving through the Senate that would boost CPSC funding, increase maximum penalties for violating product-safety laws to $100 million from $1.85 million, protect whistleblowers, and let the understaffed agency hire at least 100 more people. (The Wall Street Journal has more details.) Manufacturers and retailers aren’t happy – and neither is the CPSC acting chair Nancy Nord, reports Stephen Labaton in the New York Times: 

Ms. Nord opposes provisions that would increase the maximum penalties for safety violations and make it easier for the government to make public reports of faulty products, protect industry whistle-blowers and prosecute executives of companies that willfully violate laws. …

Ms. Nord, who before joining the agency had been a lawyer at Eastman Kodak and an official at the United States Chamber of Commerce, criticized the measure in letters sent late last week and on Monday afternoon to the Democratic leaders of the committee. She was critical, for instance, of a provision to ban lead from all toys, saying it was not practical. She said that the proposal to raise the potential penalty to $100 million “may have the undesired consequence of firms, as a precautionary measure, flooding the agency with virtually every consumer complaint and incident.” Her concern, she said, was that the increase in complaints would so overwhelm the commission that, “true safety issues would go unrecognized in the process.”

She also criticized a provision that would give state prosecutors the authority to enforce the federal consumer safety laws.

It’s not surprising to find a Bush administration appointee opposing regulation that industry groups also oppose. But Nord goes even further:

Manufacturers had agreed to another provision that would assign independent laboratories to test and certify the safety of products, rather than the agency. But Ms. Nord said she objected to the provision. She preferred that the agency determine the conditions for using independent laboratories.

Some of Ms. Nord’s complaints were similar to the ones that business groups and manufacturers have raised, including that the legislation would be unnecessarily burdensome. But in other areas, like whistle-blower protection, her complaints went beyond those of industry.

While companies generally have not objected to giving protection to whistle-blowers in the industries regulated by the commission, for example, she said it would “dramatically drain the limited resources of the commission, to the direct detriment of public safety.”

Nord has made her own proposal, which is much more modest that the one the Senate’s considering. White House spokesman Tony Fratto says that the administration shares many of Nord’s concerns and is preparing to send its own forceful letter to Congress.

It’s time for Congress to give the CPSC some teeth, whether the agency wants them or not. When an administration less hostile to public health regulation takes over, it will need the power to make up the consumer-safety ground that we’ve lost.

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