Government is known for “taking action” by commissioning studies, and the CPSC apparently strives to live up to that reputation. This is well illustrated by the way the agency is pretending to follow congressional direction to figure out ways to reduce testing costs: we repeatedly are asking the public for ways to reduce costs but without the promise of taking any action. Perhaps we think that if we study the issue long enough, those suffering under the unwarranted costs we have imposed will be long out of business, consumers will just get used to overpaying for regulatory burdens, and the issue will go away.
Our testing and certification rule places enormous burdens on companies with too little benefit to consumers. In 2011, Congress and the President tried to focus the agency on the issue through Public Law 112-28, telling us to ask the public to help us find savings, fix what we could without weakening compliance, and ask for more authority if we needed it. We have been dragging our feet on that work, and the latest chapter—our Fiscal Year 2014 budget request—makes clear that we won’t pick up the pace anytime soon.
In this budget, the extent of our burden reduction effort is to acknowledge that P.L. 112-28 exists. I tried to get agreement on an amendment that would have added a statement that we “may undertake activity to reduce the burdens identified” and that our staff would, as appropriate, prepare briefing packages on specific proposals. Of course, I would have preferred stronger language, but I wanted my colleagues’ agreement to this small commitment to action and so I offered this as a compromise. My colleagues found that too bold, explaining instead that we had already fulfilled our obligations under the law, voluntarily followed up on some of the comments we received, and might do more in the future.
I do not concur with my colleagues’ cramped and nonsensical view that all the law requires is that we seek comments on how to reduce burdens. (Would Congress really have asked us to get public comments and not intend us to review, analyze, and act on them?) Once presented with real options for reducing burdens, we have an obligation to take some action. Since my colleagues were not willing to make even this small commitment I could not in good conscience support a budget that asks for more resources but ignores basic regulatory obligations, especially as other agencies expect cuts to their resources. (My official statement on the budget can be found here.)
In 2012, our staff suggested 16 (non-exclusive) ways to reduce testing burdens and in the FY13 operating plan, the Commission whittled its to-do list down to sending out further requests for more information on just four ideas. We’ve asked for comments upon comments. Information is good (and people should again respond to our request), but Congress wanted us to do something about costs, not just consider doing something at some future time.
In response to my objections, I’ve heard the “door is not closed” on reducing burdens. The tone underlying that statement is that we’ve already done what we need to do, but we might do more. As discussed, I don’t think we have done much at all, but let’s take the statement at face value. Is there any reason to believe the door isn’t closed? Agencies only do the work they budget for, and not designating any resources for testing burden reduction is a sign that we won’t be doing that work.
I’m also told the budget is not really the appropriate place for burden reduction, that our operating plan would be the better vehicle. If it’s like the FY13 operating plan, the next version won’t even be written until halfway through FY14, when most of our resources are already committed. That’s the regulatory equivalent of “when we get around to it.” It’s not consistent with either the law or our obligation as public servants to regulate with no heavier a hand than necessary to reduce unreasonable risks to consumers.