By Truman Lewis

November 6, 2007
The Bush administration presented its plan to beef up product safety today, one week after a Senate committee passed a bill that would give the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) more power and money.

But on Capitol Hill, there were complaints that Bush had omitted the most important part of the proposal: funding.

"I am pleased the President finally recognizes the threat of tainted imports to consumers," said Rep. John D. Dingell, Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce. "Unfortunately, there is little new information in today's announcement. In fact, the critical issue of funding is curiously absent from the proposal."

Noting that Congress is already considering legislation to provide increased funding and authority to the CPSC and other agencies, Dingell said his committee would soon hold hearings on Bush's proposals "to determine whether they respond to the problems our Committee has uncovered since the beginning of the year."

Politicians of all stripes have been scrambling to appear concerned about consumer safety following a recent wave of revelations about lead paint on toys, pet food poisonings, unsafe baby seats and other hazards.

It's a far cry from a few months ago, when no one on Capitol Hill or the White House could be bothered to talk about consumer safety. After they took control of Congress, Democrats brushed aside inquiries from consumer advocates about problems at the CPSC.

One prominent Democrat waved off a reporter. "Not now, son, we've got a war to deal with," he huffed.

Now, with elections on the horizon and voters outraged about lax safety efforts, both Congress and the White House are hustling to look busy.

The White House proposal calls for a prevention-based regulatory system, meaning that it targets the riskiest products while relying on industry to police itself. Congress is leaning towards a more proactive system that would include stepped-up inspections at ports.

Bush's proposal would grant the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) more power to require that importers certify their products meet U.S. standards and require them to take specified steps to prevent contamination.

The CPSC, meanwhile, would be given the authority to require companies to conduct tests to certify that their products meet safety rules. Penalties for violators would be increased. The Department of Homeland Security would have the authority to require that importers post bonds.

Senate action

Last week, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation unanimously voted for the "Consumer Product Safety Reform Act of 2007" and all of its amendments. The bill would boost funds and staff while introducing sweeping reforms to the Consumer Product Safety Commission's regulatory powers.

I think it's a major victory that we finally after years and years and years are starting to take consumer issues more seriously, said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), one of the bill's outspoken co-sponsors. The agency's a shadow of its former self. Millions of toys have been recalled and kids have died and I think it's long overdue.

While consumer advocates heralded the vote as a victory, industry leaders are not as pleased about an agency that may soon have enough bite to force manufacturers into stronger consumer protection standards.

In its current form, we are unable to support (the bill) and urge you to make considerable changes to the bill at the mark-up, wrote a coalition of presidents and CEOs of 15 of the nation's largest industry lobbying organizations.

The committee did not make any notable changes at today's mark-up and completely ignored the proposals which those lobbyists submitted.

Those lobbyists are largely concerned with the whistleblower, increased fines and lead ban provisions.

The House is working on a similar piece of legislation which is not as harsh. Most notably, it increases the fines to only $10 million instead of the Senate's $100 million. That bill's mark-up has not yet been scheduled but will likely be before the end of the year.