This week is National Consumer Protection Week, and I think more than ever we need to focus on how we can best protect consumers against unreasonable risks of harm. Though we have done an admirable job of that over the years (doing things like improving portable generators and improving crib safety), we need to zero in on our priorities, given our limited resources. The sequester cut CPSC’s budget, so we must be sure that we are laser-focused on our mission. We cannot afford to waste resources chasing secondary violations, paperwork slip-ups, and minor infractions. Although they may technically be violations, they often do not pose safety issues. We need to identify where and when there is the greatest risk of harm from a consumer product, and be there to protect the consumer from it.
Archive for the 'CPSC' Category
Tags: CPSC, CPSIA, Testing Rule
Today, the CPSC’s children’s product periodic testing and certification rule goes into effect. Perhaps the most sweeping rule in the agency’s history, it was spurred by 2008’s Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. Even before becoming effective, it has substantially affected the agency, the regulated community, and consumers. Starting today, those effects will grow.
After much debate about its details (more on that shortly), the rule is now the law. It sets massive new requirements for the CPSC’s regulated community. To comply with it, companies and labs should have developed systems and procedures to comply with the new requirements and these should all now largely be in place.
Even so, tweaks to those systems will, of course, be necessary. Some of those changes are things that manufacturers and labs can take care of on their own. Others, however, will probably require attention from agency staff and from the Commission. As you encounter problems with this rule, make sure that the agency and I hear about them. Your voice can make a difference. Already, based on pre-implementation concerns, both Congress and the CPSC have made changes to the rule. And as the rule now goes into effect, we can only expect more concerns to be revealed. When they arise, let us know about them.
Of course, as readers of this blog already know, this rule is not my ideal rule. During the many debates leading up to today, I have already filled enough of this space discussing my disagreements with the Commission’s decisions to belabor them here in any detail. To sum it up, I believe we overstated the necessity for third-party testing, ignored opportunities to make the rule more effective, created “gotcha” traps for companies, and paid lip-service to Congress’s demands that we look to make it less expensive. The result is an unwieldy rule that (because of its name) might make consumers feel safer, but holds only speculative hopes of actually making them safer. All the while, they now have the certainty of fewer choices at higher prices.
Yet, though I remain concerned about the unnecessary damage this rule threatens—and as I continue to work to improve it—make no mistake: It is the law. Companies must heed it even where they disagree with it, and violators should expect a visit from our compliance staff. We have lots of resources for helping businesses understand this rule and how to meet its demands, especially for small businesses. If you have not already figured out your plans for complying with the rule, hurry up and fix that. We surely will all learn a lot along the way, but there is no more time for waiting.
In a time of budget crises and calls for leaner, smarter government, I’ve spent some time thinking about how the CPSC works and how to make it better. Based on my experience on the commission—starting with three commissioners, then two, then five, then four, and now three again—I have to question the decision to have multi-member commissions—at least here at the CPSC. I have spoken about the subject numerous times, including last fall when I visited with the students and faculty of the Regulatory Policy Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. We talked about whether multi-member commissions provide their supposed benefits, and what we should do about it if they don’t. You can read some more of my thoughts in the latest issue of the Cato Institute’s Regulation magazine.
A New Year is upon us, likely my last at the Consumer Product Safety Commission. As I reflect on what the CPSC has accomplished since I’ve been here and what I hope we can do this year, I think there’s one New Year’s resolution I would like to see my fellow Commissioners and I keep:
Collaboration–We should focus more on the ‘should’ and not on the ‘can’.
Had Congress wanted CPSC unilaterally controlled by the party in the White House, it could have placed a single administrator within a consumer product safety agency and left product safety policy to presidential direction. Instead, Congress, by creating an independent Commission, clearly encouraged dialogue and compromise. We should heed that call.
The past three years have been frustrating on those occasions when closed decision-making was favored over negotiation, albeit difficult at times We need to set aside pointed rhetoric, concentrate on core issues, and replace partisan lines with genuine lines of communication. Collectively, we can and should try to find a way to ‘yes’ by honestly listening to and accommodating differing points of view. We can be better at how we function as Commissioners. If we resolve to do so, we can make consumers safer, give manufacturers a fairer consideration, and allow everyone to have more confidence that our decisions are not just ones we can make, but ones we should make.
Is the American economy ready to face an onslaught of new regulations? Here at the CPSC, we’ve been regulating non-stop for quite some time now. And although we’ve heard a message from the White House that we need to be careful about how we regulate—minimizing the negative effects on consumers and small businesses—we haven’t really listened to this message. And now that the Commission is down to a two-to-one partisan split, are we going to ramp up regulating even more? As Richard Rahn explains here, if our small agency can and will continue to crank out costly regulations, imagine what the big ones will do.
I believe that one of regulators’ most important responsibilities is to assess the impact of the regulations they issue. A great way to do that is to get out of Washington and talk with the folks who have to live and work under the regulations we put out. I always welcome the opportunity to do that.
Recently I was in California and Arizona talking with various groups about how we are doing—both what we are doing right and what needs to be improved. In the “what we are doing right” column, there was appreciation that people in Washington would actually listen to concerns and talk candidly about how best to address them. In the “room for improvement” column, I heard strong concerns about the high costs of complying with regulations that are confusing or do not necessarily address real safety issues.
Here is an example. I visited an apparel manufacturer who has never had any safety violations or issues. They told me that, over the past 10 years, the average wholesale cost of a garment has decreased by about 50% and that costs increased by over 15% during the same time . The testing costs mandated by the CPSC under the CPSIA over the past three years have increased costs by an additional 3.5%. That added cost is an average: it’s much higher for small production runs. In fact, I was told that the testing costs for small runs “are killing us” and that this company has stopped doing small runs of products. In this case, the consumer loses: less choice and not necessarily any additional safety.
I also had the opportunity to visit with the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, doing more listening than speaking. The message I got was that businesses will support regulations that are based on sound science, are cost effective, and that advance a real safety goal. Unfortunately, some recent regulations do not meet these criteria so it is no wonder that we hear growing concern.
To me, this growing concern points to a system that is not operating in the public interest—that is, providing the appropriate level of safety in the most cost-effective manner. We need to fix this.
Like many of you, I do basic housekeeping a few times a week. Then in the spring I get out the scrub brushes, hammer, and nails, and roll up my sleeves to do the major projects. To keep a house in good working order, you need both. The federal government also needs to do both major work and routine maintenance to keep a regulatory regime working at its optimum.
To be in good working order, federal agencies’ rules should be tailored to achieving their goals without unnecessarily burdening the public. I have long said this, so I was pleased when President Obama asked independent agencies, in a July 2011 executive order, to write plans to review their rules to identify and fix those that are outdated, inefficient, or needlessly burdensome.
The plan we adopt shouldn’t focus on the equivalent of minor housekeeping fixes when major house repairs are in order. Minor regulatory housekeeping should be part of our everyday activity. That doesn’t require a major plan; major repairs do. The Commission’s plan should be an “ambitious and unprecedentedly open process for streamlining, improving, and eliminating regulations,” to use the words of Cass Sunstein, director of the President’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. The end of this process should be a regulatory regime that protects the public’s health and safety while ensuring that American consumers, employers, manufacturers, and innovators face the lowest reasonable burden.
Last fall, the CPSC asked the public for input on the elements of a rule review plan. The staff has now given us a draft plan that represents a starting point for Commission consideration. I have asked that the rule review plan be put on the Commission’s agenda so that we can discuss it collegially and openly as a Commission. We have a public meeting on another matter scheduled for late June. While I hope that we can take up a regulatory review plan sooner, at a minimum, I hope that this item can be added to the agenda for the June meeting.
If you’ve been paying attention to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, you surely noticed that we’ve been doing a lot about pools. Pool drains and their covers, to be specific.
A quick recap: in spring 2010, we interpreted the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act to allow public pool operators to comply with the law by putting an unblockable drain cover over a single main drain. But we reversed ourselves last fall over my strenuous objection that we weren’t following our own rules or federal law, and that the safety effects of the reversal were not backed up by any staff analysis (read more about it here, here, here, and here). In one small concession to responsible pool owners who relied on our interpretation, all of my colleagues joined me in voting to ask the public for comments about the effective date of the reversal.
Well, we got comments. And the vast majority of them said that the reversal was wrong and would be expensive to implement. Based on those comments, the staff recommended that we extend the compliance date by a year for pool operators who relied on the first interpretation. The Commission agreed with the staff (by a vote of 3 to 1), so responsible pool operators get at least a little respite from our haphazard regulations. I wish we hadn’t put them in such an awkward position in the first place. I hope the message gets out to them, especially since this extension happened less than two months before the effective date. In a better world, it would pay to be a conscientious planner.
You can learn more about this by reading my official statement on the vote here.