Archive for the 'Congress' Category

Defining “Wooden-Headedness”

In The March of Folly, historian Barbara Tuchman writes:

Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkable large role in government.  It consists of assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs.  It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.

Late last week the CPSC Commissioners voted to write Ms. Tuchman’s definition of “wooden-headedness”  into the Code Le_avventure_di_Pinocchio-pag046of Federal Regulations by issuing a direct final rule to give long-awaited “relief” from the burden imposed by its third party testing rules as directed by Congress way back in 2011[1].

The Commission has been promising relief from its burdensome testing requirements but has been doing everything it can to avoid doing anything since 2011 when Congress first directed it to take action.  Now after four years of study and promises to Congress (even as recently as last month), the Commission has found [INSERT LOUD DRUM ROLL HERE] that toys made from unfinished and untreated wood from the trunks of trees do not have to be tested for the presence of seven heavy metals regulated by the toy standard.

The Commission’s action last week is justified by a contractor’s study which is itself a study in the precautionary principle run amuck.  The contractor was tasked with doing a literature search looking at the same natural materials (untreated wood, fibers such as wool, linen, cotton or silk, bamboo and beeswax among other things) which the Commission exempted from testing for lead back in 2009.  Yet only for trunk wood was the contractor able to report sufficient data to show no presence of the suspect heavy metals in concentrations that violated the toy standard.  For most of the other materials there was insufficient evidence reported to show the absence of violative concentrations of the heavy metals. The contractor, however, did find that a report that wool from sheep dipped in arsenical pesticides (which are no longer used) had high concentrations of arsenic as did wool from sheep grazing next to a gold smelting mine.  In other words, if the contractor, in doing its literature search, found a study documenting a problem, then the material was disqualified.  If the contractor could not find a study documenting a problem, the material was also disqualified on the basis of insufficient information.

Back in 2009, the agency staff was able to make rather more expansive determinations quite quickly and efficiently, without expensive contractor studies, and to my knowledge, public health and safety has not been threatened by this action.  The current agency action seeks to take the smallest, most ineffectual step possible and then point to a constrained reading of the statute and an inconclusive contractor study to justify inaction.

Congress told the agency to take action to reduce testing burdens or report back if statutory impediments required Congressional action.  The agency has done neither.  Instead, the Commission, on several recent occasions, has promised Congress that action on test burden reduction will be forthcoming.  One hopes that limiting testing exemptions to toys made from tree trunks is not what the Commissioners had in mind when those statements were made.  It is hard to believe that Congress will find this a satisfactory response either.

So if you use bamboo or perhaps linen or beeswax in crafting your toy, you are out of luck because there is no evidence these materials are unsafe.  For those small businesses out there who might make a toy from a tree limb or decorate the toy with bark or twigs, you are also out of luck!  And if you are looking for clarity, too bad.  As one of my friends in the small business community said when she heard about this, “Is a branch 12 inches in diameter a trunk? Do I need to ask the lumber yard if the wood came from a trunk? Will they even know? Will I need to have proof the wood came from a trunk?  It just comes across as comical.  Is there value in this determination?  I suppose, but for many it is just too little, way too late. Four years late to be exact.”

The fact is that public health is not impacted by toys that include components of natural materials—the agency’s experience with lead has shown that.  Indeed, the natural materials exemption is a very narrow one and hardly opens the flood gates to testing avoidance. One must ask why the agency is so adverse to finding a workable solution to reducing testing burdens.  Wooden-headedness brings about wooden thinking.

[1] Direct final rules are reserved for those rules that are noncontroversial, and usually deal with routine, narrow or non-substantive matters. They go into effect unless someone objects.  In this case the rule, and the testing relief it proffers, could not be more narrow.

Penalty Factors Ought to Mean Something

For some time the product safety bar has been concerned about the apparently arbitrary manner in which penalties are assessed at the CPSC.  In 2010 the Commission adopted a rule that set forth the factors that must be considered in determining how penalties are assessed.  Unfortunately, since then, the agency has given only the slightest head-nod to these factors and has not applied them in any kind of rigorous, disciplined, or transparent manner.  Yet such transparency is important in helping the regulated community better understand how the agency defines the concept of “substantial product hazard” which is at the center of most penalty matters.

The problem with the Commission’s approach is well-illustrated by the $3.4 million settlement recently negotiated with Office Depot.  This case involved 1.4 million office chairs sold by the retailer over a ten year period.  Over those ten years, the company received 153 incident reports with 25 reported injuries only some of which required medical attention.  Commissioner Mohorovic has written a thoughtful statement in which he does apply the Commission’s penalty factors to this case.  His conclusion is that had the penalty factors actually been properly applied, the resulting penalty should have been much lower.  His statement is well worth reading.

The current chairman and former acting chairman have made public statements that penalties should, as a matter of course, increase across the board to reflect their view of Congressional intent in increasing the agency’s penalty authorities.  If it is going to be agency policy to push for increased penalties, then the agency owes it to the public to have a more transparent process for imposing penalties.  As Commission Mohorovic notes, currently there is little coherence in the agency’s approach to penalties. As a consequence, parties before the agency are left to struggle with an opaque process where the rules are written after the fact.  Such a result is bad public policy.

Firing Blanks

While some of us may be old enough to remember playing with toy cap guns, this relic of another time has pretty much faded into the memories of kids, now long grown up, who counted the Lone Ranger, Matt Dillon or Dale Evans as a hero—except at the CPSC.  Today the Commissioners received a proposal to repeal longstanding regulations dealing with toy caps.


This proposal is part (actually, the biggest part) of the agency’s “commitment” to undertake regulatory review.

I have written before of the agency’s disregard of the President’s direction to agencies to undertake rule review. He said that “if there are rules on the books that are needlessly stifling job creation and economic growth, we will fix them.” Apparently we have combed our rules and the repeal of the toy cap rule is all we could come up with. Never mind that this rule was already subsumed by another regulation and that other than cleaning up the Code of Federal Regulations, our actions have no effect—no one claims that the toy cap rule is stifling economic growth. Never mind that it took well over a year to go through the process of repealing a rule that impacted no one.

Yet there are many rules on the books here at the CPSC that do needlessly stifle economic growth. The testing rule is a good example of where we went overboard in our enthusiasm to regulate. In 2011, Congress asked us to take another look at testing costs and to take action to reduce the costs and burdens of testing consistent with consumer safety. We have repeatedly asked for comment on the same issues and then slow-walked any effort to take action in response to those comments.

Rather than taking honest action to address real pressing problems presented by overly-broad rules, we have hidden behind a rule review fig leaf—toy caps. It would be funny if it were not so serious.

Marshall Dillon, where are you when we need you?  Load up your toy cap gun and come to the rescue.

CPSC to Congress: Still Kicking the Can


The government shutdown eclipsed an important letter that the agency received on October 1 from our congressional overseers asking us explain our failure to move forward on addressing the costs of CPSIA-mandated third-party testing. You will recall that Public Law 112-28 required us to address those costs and let the Congress know if we needed new authorities to do so. Congress asked for a response by October 21—today. No answer has yet gone back to the Hill, although the shutdown explains some brief delay.

But every day that we delay in reducing the costs of often-unnecessary testing we fail to perform our job to regulate rationally, opening the agency up to deserved criticism. And it is no wonder that Congress asks why we haven’t addressed this issue. To review: In November 2011, we asked the public for ideas on reducing testing costs and, based on some of those comments, our staff came up with a list of 16 recommendations. A year later, the Commissioners pared the list down to nine items, and then further shrunk it down to four ideas, none of which have been acted upon.

It has been said that there is a six-word formula for success: think things through, then follow through. Our regulations on third-party testing were not thought through, so Congress stepped in, asking  us to try again and this time follow through by either addressing the problem or asking for authorities to do so. Our response? We kicked the can down the road.  Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I do hope this letter draws enough attention here to trigger real follow-through.

Like others, I will be most interested to read our response to the Congress, whenever it comes. One suspects we will point to the fact that we have gathered public comments on at three separate occasions. One further  suspects we will plead poverty, saying we have no resources for doing this important work. But asking stakeholders to comment over and over again on the same issues does not advance the ball. And claiming lack of resources as preventing solutions to problems of our own making rings pretty hollow.

Ben Franklin said, “Never confuse motion with action.”  We have had lots of motion.  We need some action before those who would benefit just give up.

Unfinished Business

In Washington, sometimes repeating something often enough seems to make it true. We see this phenomenon working in the press stories and speeches marking the CPSIA’s fifth anniversary last month.

Although the law has its strengths and weaknesses, the real story is the unrealistic tack that the CPSC has taken in implementing the CPSIA, changing difficult circumstances into nearly impossible ones. Operating from the assumption that if some regulation is good, then more must be better, the agency embarked on a course that seeks to cover all risks—real, speculative, or imagined—rather than crafting regulations to address known unreasonable risks of injury. That our regulations go well beyond what the new law requires is not a fact that seems to concern us. 

One problem with this approach is how divorced it is from the real world. Our regulations are overly-broad and so ultra-complex that only companies with swarms of lawyers can hope to fully understand and comply with them. Thus questions necessarily arise as to how to truly comply with our regulations. And, of course, those questions have been pouring into the agency.

This issue is brought home by a new report from the Handmade Toy Alliance documenting the experiences of small toy manufacturers and importers under the CPSIA and CPSC’s implementation of it over the past five years. HTA members are those who bring excitement, creativity, and imagination to the world of play. None of the products they make presented the safety issues that prompted the CPSIA. Yet this group has felt the brunt of the law more severely than others. Here are some of their observations about the impact of the CPSC’s implementation of the law:

  • “The [testing] rule overwhelmingly favors large manufacturers at the expense of smaller ones. . . . A small business owner could develop what they believe is a reasonable testing program, but it is unlikely to meet the CPSC’s strict interpretation.” HTA points out that we have designed a rule that tilts to the benefit of the large company and which small companies cannot meet.
  • Due to the onerous nature of the requirements, many small businesses will choose “the path of least resistance—to continue doing what they have done for years to assure they produce a safe product [and] use their experience and wisdom to guide design and manufacture, and [to] form relationships with their customers. . . . [S]ome portions of the requirements are adhered to and others are ignored because of costs and complexity.” In other words, small producers will focus on safety and only selectively comply with those portions of our rules they can meet or understand. Creating rules that do not improve safety but contribute to an approach of selective noncompliance is dereliction of our duty as regulators and stands rational regulatory policy on its head.
  • Further, some “handmade toy makers have simply gone out of business or chosen to make products that are not designed for children because the CPSIA and subsequent relief efforts preserve a hurdle too high for small business to clear.” I wonder why those who are praising the passage of the CPSIA find this to be a good result.

Are these not serious flaws attributable to the CPSIA and the agency’s implementation of it? I believe so and they are compounded by this agency’s unwillingness—through over two years of procrastination—to address the unnecessary burdens of our rules as we were directed to do by the Congress. The public has identified ways to ease the burdens, our staff has identified ways to ease the burdens, and I have even added to the list—yet we have not taken any action to implement concrete suggestions, all the while ignoring congressional directions to take action. The HTA report contains a list of actions the agency could take that would ease the burdens of small producers while maintaining safety.

HTA concludes, “The missteps of a few very large toy companies precipitated regulations which damaged thousands of small and micro U.S. businesses and continues to encumber those that survive. . . . Congress and the CPSC must move forward with meaningful solutions that are funded and given priority.”

I have raised these issues with my colleagues repeatedly (and as recently as this month when we voted on our upcoming regulatory agenda). I have been repeatedly outvoted and told that reducing the burdens of our regulations is not a priority of the agency. Again, I ask, when will we turn our attention to correcting the problems we made?

More Than Just Listening

CPSC recently held a public hearing to get input from stakeholders about its agenda and priorities for FY 2014 and FY 2015. We heard from two panels of consumer advocates and manufacturers’ associations. Many thought-provoking subjects were discussed. I found the topic of child safety in low-income households, raised by the Consumer Federation of America, to be an important challenge to address, not just at CPSC, but across the federal government. (As I have written before in this blog, some of our current policies risk pricing low-income consumers out of safety.)

Two other topics were particularly noteworthy. The Handmade Toy Alliance (HTA) said that signing up for the “small batch manufacturer” registry—exempting them from certain third-party testing requirements—did not substantially ease their burden. Even though they were technically exempt from third-party testing, HTA’s members still must meet various statutory limits and, crucially, are often unable to do adequate testing without engaging third-party testing labs. Further, HTA pointed out the requirement added by the Commission to post on its website the name of every company that received this exemption was a deterrent to companies to participate and thereby have their business data posted. It is no surprise, then, that although we expected upwards of 30,000 companies to sign up, only about 500 are have so far.

Another issue raised by HTA, as well as the Toy Industry Association (TIA) and the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), was the need for CPSC to dedicate resources, pursuant to Congress’s direction in Public Law 112-28, to implement measures that reduce testing burdens while still ensuring compliance with safety standards. To date, the Commission has no specific commitment to action in FY 2014 and FY2015 to reduce testing costs. The Commission previously defeated my amendment which would have allowed for more action.

I hope that we will listen to our stakeholders’ pleas—and Congress’s direction—and do the hard work to improve safety for more Americans while minimizing the burden we place on the American economy.

Show Your Work

In this day and age, who gets to do their own work and not show it to anyone else before it sees the light of day? Surely there are few who let work product out without someone vetting it. That’s why businesses get third-party auditors. That’s why grade school students show their work, so their teachers can correct them. And that’s why, starting with President Reagan, every president has required executive agencies to submit major rules to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (in the White House Office of Management and Budget) to ensure that the rules are supported by thorough, accurate regulatory impact analyses (of which cost-benefit analyses are a key element). So it shouldn’t be surprising that a bipartisan coalition has begun forming to require independent agencies to do the same thing, which is taking shape in the form of the Independent Agency Regulatory Analysis Act (S. 1173), co-sponsored by Sens. Rob Portman (R–Ohio), Susan Collins (R–Maine), and Mark Warner (D–Virginia). Unfortunately, it also isn’t surprising that some (including some of my colleagues here at the CPSC) see this review as an impediment to regulatory independence. Such was suggested in a recent New York Times editorial. Senator Portman and I responded to those misguided concerns here. In addition, I wrote an op-ed in The Hill newspaper arguing in favor of the bill, which you can read here.

The bill is now pending before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.  Should this idea become law, it would provide a measure of accountability to regulators to better justify the actions they take.

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