Question: When is Children’s Safety a Particular Concern?

It’s a sad day when the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) – charged with keeping consumers, especially children, safe from harmful products – can’t even agree that it will demonstrate “particular concern for the safety impacts on children” when it enforces its rules. Yesterday was that sad day.

Two weeks ago, when a majority of the Commission decided to impose a heavy-handed, indiscriminate lead requirement when there were plenty of reasons not to, I suggested that we direct staff to draft an enforcement policy to let people know how we would seek to enforce that rule.  What followed were two weeks of negotiations that resulted in a rather empty “statement” drafted at the Commission level that does little to help the community understand our goals.

I had hoped we could, at least, tell people we will enforce the limit with “particular concern for the safety impacts on children.” This would tell manufacturers of things kids actually use, touch, and mouth that they needed to be extra cautious. I was not able to reach agreement to include this phrase.  Apparently, enforcement with  “a particular concern for the safety impacts on children” isn’t a message we want getting out.

During yesterday’s debate, we heard that we can’t make our enforcement policy public or it will turn into a “How to” manual for getting around our rules. However, such a public policy is not an unusual idea.  Other agencies do it, and, indeed, our own agency has done it before, and we’re still able to enforce our regulations especially when companies get either sloppy or cheap and endanger consumers.

During the debate we also heard that kind of public enforcement policy would be “backdoor rulemaking.” I fail to see how it is anything other than the kind of open, transparent governing we should be doing. We are, after all, supposed to govern in the sunshine, so why not put our policies out front so people know just what it is we’re trying to do? It seems odd to me that it would be “backdoor rulemaking” to talk publicly about what we’re doing privately. It seems to me that, if governing openly is “backdoor rulemaking,” then governing in secret is “trapdoor rulemaking”, and that’s a style of governing I can’t support.*

Instead of a clear, open policy that would put manufacturers of the products most likely to cause harm on notice that they needed to adhere to very tight safety programs, we wound up with the statement we approved yesterday. I agreed to the statement because it does acknowledge that lead testing at the level we’re requiring is, at best, an inexact science, and it assures that staff will consider that fact as appropriate when bringing enforcement actions.

Nonetheless, when we can’t even agree to let people know our enforcement decisions embody “particular concern for the safety impacts on children,” then perhaps it’s time to re-think how we approach regulating.

Here is the statement that we did agree to:

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is cognizant of the claims that some manufacturers have made regarding their difficulty in consistently meeting the 100 ppm requirements because of the inherent variability in testing methods and the variability in materials they use in the manufacturing process.

The Commission always attempts to apply good judgment, common sense and fair and reasonable approaches when it enforces its regulations. The Commission staff will always consider documented claims made by manufacturers regarding their difficulty in consistently meeting the 100 ppm lead content requirements.

*In addition to my concerns on the limited value of the statement we passed, I also believe the majority, in opposing a more substantive policy, is misusing the term “backdoor rulemaking.” In real backdoor rulemaking, agencies establish new rules through procedures other than the familiar (and open) notice-and-comment process the law provides for rulemaking. An example of this would be using enforcement powers to force companies into complying with an agency’s demands, thereby setting a de facto rule without having to go through actual rulemaking.

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