Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

The Baby and the Bathwater

Former long-time CPSCer and agency executive director Patsy Semple used to regularly remind the staff  to “not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”  In other words, do not, through excessive zeal, eliminate the good while working to eliminate the bad. baby-bathwater

Patsy’s admonishment came to mind when, earlier this week, I read an excellent article by Lee Bishop, a very well-respected practitioner, in the Product Safety Letter.  Here is a link to the article.

Using CPSC published statistics, Lee notes that the number of voluntary Section 15(b) reports (required when a company has reason to believe a substantial product hazard may exist) resulting in a recall has dropped dramatically in 2013 compared to earlier years.  Because these reports are what usually triggers a recall, it is no surprise that the number of recalls has also gone down. Lee catalogues recent agency policy changes that, taken together, have resulted in a more punitive posture on the part of the CPSC. As a result, rather than following the agency advice of “when in doubt, report,” more companies are being cautious about reporting to the agency for fear that a marginal safety issue may be turned by the agency into a big enforcement headache.  Lee concludes that the statistics suggest “more companies appear willing to take the risk of a penalty for late or non-reporting for marginal safety issues over the second-guessing and punitive treatment that are now routine for companies that turn themselves in and volunteer to conduct recalls.”

As one seasoned CPSC staffer told me at a recent event, the focus of the agency is more on finding violations and seeking penalties than on trying to work with product sellers to solve safety problems. This is a short-sighted approach that ignores the fact that product safety can best be achieved when regulators and product sellers work collaboratively to address problems.  It is time for the agency to start paying more attention to the baby and less to the bathwater.

 

Illusory Process = Diminished Results

The CPSC staff is now collecting and cogitating on information about how phthalates—substances added as plasticizers to make plastics soft and pliable—are used to manufacture children’s toys and child care articles.  This activity is part of the agency’s effort (perhaps its only effort?) to minimize the burdens of third party testing, as required by Congress in P.L. 112-28.  If the agency can conclude that certain substances do not and cannot contain illegal phthalates, then it can determine that products made up of those substances do not need to be tested for phthalates.

The problem is that the way the agency is going about its inquiry is almost guaranteed to result in very little relief.  And since phthalates testing is very costly, an illusory process that is structured to minimize any relief available does not reduce the testing burden Congress was trying to achieve, much less what responsible regulators should insist on.  The problem with the phthalates inquiry is that the agency is requiring that stakeholders not only show that phthalates are not now being used in the manufacturing process, but also to show that it is impossible that they will be so used any time in the future, in any place in the world.  In other words no matter how much real world data one supplies, it cannot proof the negative as is being asked by the CPSC staff.  Although we all know the moon is not made of green cheese, who can say what will happen in the future.

The outcome of this inquiry is pretty clear.  Certain predictable substances, such as natural wood and fibers, will eventually receive exclusions from testing (after how many years of costly and unnecessary testing?).  The bulk of products that do not use phthalates but whose makers cannot now predict the future in the absolute terms required by the agency will not get relief.  The agency will claim this as an accomplishment and close up shop on any real burden reduction.

I do not understand why the agency has taken the approach it has.  A real and honest effort to understand where phthalates are used, where they are not and then address its compliance efforts at where they are used and its burden reduction efforts at where they are not would result in significant relief.  Rather than ask stakeholders to prove a negative, they should ask stakeholders to help them understand where the agency should be looking for phthalates.

The response, no doubt, is that a collaborative approach does not guarantee that phthalates will not be added by some unscrupulous manufacturer at some point in the future.  However testing relief does not relieve anyone of complying with the underlying phthalates prohibition.  And the agency has plenty of tools to address that eventually if it were to occur.  Because the phthalates prohibition must be complied with regardless of testing, the agency cannot say that its current constrained approach is required to be consistent with assuring compliance with the existing law.  Denying testing relief to the vast majority of manufacturers who do not use phthalates because of some imagined future scenario which the agency can address should it occur does not carry out the spirit of the law Congress passed.

$375,000: The Price for Peace

Yesterday the CPSC announced that it has reached a settlement with Craig Zucker, in the litigation to force a recall of Buckyballs.  The Commission alleged that 0727_buckyballs_630x420Buckyballs, although designed and marketed for adults, were defective because a number of children had sustained serious injuries after swallowing the tiny powerful magnetic balls.  The settlement calls for the CPSC staff to establish a recall trust fund to manage the recall. Mr. Zucker will fund an escrow account to dole out money to the trust fund up to $375,000.  In its press release, the CPSC trumpets that this is “a win for safety.”  Mr. Zucker, on the other hand, says that he hopes “the settlement will discourage the CPSC from wrongfully pursuing . . . entrepreneurs in the future.”

Who, then, won and who lost?  In the most simplistic terms, perhaps one could say that the agency won since it accomplished a recall that would not otherwise have occurred.  But what is that recall worth and at what price was the recall obtained?

Left on the table is the question of whether Buckyballs are defective.  The government’s theory of defect was that warnings are not sufficient to prevent injury to an unintended user group and therefore the product cannot be made and sold, even though there were no injuries to the intended user group.  In the settlement Mr. Zucker does not concede that Buckyballs are defective, and the settlement leaves unresolved the agency’s apparent philosophy that a product can be banned if warnings do not work.

Also left on the table is the question of whether the agency even had jurisdiction over Mr. Zucker in his personal capacity. The agreement makes clear that Mr. Zucker is not conceding the issue of jurisdiction and so the applicability of the Responsible Corporate Doctrine is not addressed by this agreement except to say that Mr. Zucker personally is released from all agency liability (assuming it existed in the first place).

The recall itself is very curious.  The CPSC staff will implement the corrective action plan and claims (accompanied by proof of purchase or an affidavit attesting to purchase location and price) must be presented within six months of the recall trust being established and consumers notified of the recall.  Refunds will be made in the order they are received and any consumers who either file after the six month period ends or after the funds have been depleted are out of luck.  A web site paid for out of the recall fund will be established and maintained by the Commission for five years. The escrow account funding the recall will be closed after 12 months with any remaining funds reverting back to Mr. Zucker.  But since the government does not have experience administering recalls and will, no doubt, have to hire a third party (paid for out of recall funds) to administer the fund and oversee the recall, it is pretty unlikely that there will be any monies going back to Mr. Zucker.

The settlement agreement does raise a side issue that may be interesting to lawyers or students of regulatory policy.  The Antideficiency Act prohibits a federal agency from obligating the government to pay out money before funds have been appropriated and a real question exists as to whether this agreement violates the Antideficiency Act.  Further, administering recalls is not within the specified functions of the Commission and the act is rather specific in stating that recalls will be undertaken by the product seller.  It is not clear to me that the agency has the authority to take the actions specified in the agreement but it is also not clear who (other than the agency’s inspector general) would be in a position to object.

Going back to the question of winners and losers, it seems that there are lots of losers but I don’t see any winners.  The agency lost since it has spent substantial public resources (would it not be interesting to know how much the government has spent on this?) to reach an agreement that is about half a percent of what it initially wanted.   The agency lost because the issues that were central to the litigation were left unresolved.  Mr. Zucker lost because he, no doubt, ended up spending more in legal fees than the value of the recall and basically paid the government to get them off his back.

But at the end of the day, consumers lost. Scarce public resources were spent to achieve a recall that cannot be effective both because of how it is structured and what it is trying to accomplish.   Past experience shows that very few of these products will be returned, thereby achieving little added safety even if the government’s theory of hazard is correct.  And if the past is prologue, then the government achieved very little at a very great cost with consumers footing the bill.

 

 

Good Bye to a Dedicated Public Servant

 

Part of the satisfaction of working in government is the quality and dedication of your colleagues.  And, for a commissioner, that satisfaction is multiplied by having exceptional personal staff who can provide the necessary interface with the agency career experts.  I served as a CPSC commissioner for over eight years.  For five of those years, Joe Martyak served as my legal counsel, as chief of staff when I was acting chairman and also, for a time, as acting director of public affairs.  He did all these jobs with extraordinary competence and good grace.  After I left the commission, he continued to serve as an advisor to Commissioner Ann Marie Buerkle.  Joe has now announced that he will be leaving the CPSC, heading off to new adventures in Hawaii.  On his desk he had a sign that read:  “Just your average Joe.”  I beg to differ; Joe is anything but average.

While Joe will be greatly missed, Commissioner Buerkle has really scored a coup by enticing CPSC veteran Gib Mullan back to the agency.  Gib served as general counsel, director of compliance and was detailed to Customs when the agency was setting up its Import Surveillance Division—in other words, he has seen it all.  When he was at the agency, he was known for his deep intellect, his creativity in solving problems and his honesty—he understood the need to speak the truth even when those in power did not necessarily want to hear it. While no one can “replace” Joe, kudos to Commissioner Buerkle for bringing on such an asset as Gib Mullan.

Play at Your Own Risk

NO

Recently I was up in New York and met with two insightful and smart people I want to introduce if you do not already know them.

Phillip Howard is a lawyer, civic activist and the founder of an interesting organization, Common Good.  Part of the mission of the organization is to get back to a place where citizens can take responsibility for making sensible choices:  “Making choices for the common good is impossible if everyone is tied up in red tape. Reclaiming responsibility requires a basic shift—where law sets boundaries for free choice instead of dictating choices for the lowest common denominator. . .Common Good has developed practical solutions to bring reliability and balance to law in healthcare, education, and civil justice, as well as in areas such as children’s play. . .”.  With respect to this last item, the concern is that if all risk is taken out of play, our children will not be prepared for the risks that life inevitably throws at them as they mature.

This brings me to the second person I want to introduce—Lenore Skenazy.  Lenore is a journalist, mother, and the creator of Free Range Kids.  The (tongue-in-cheek) purpose of Free Range Kids is to fight “the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape.” While Lenore’s writings are amusing, she does make the serious point that when the line between real and speculative risk becomes so blurred—which she contends is happening more and more—our children suffer as a result.

From my perspective as a former CPSC Commissioner, I do fear that the agency, when it is regulating, too often discounts the importance of personal responsibility on the part of consumers.  The result are regulations that try to address every possible risk, real or imagined, rather than actual risks that real-world data and science have demonstrated need addressing.   Imaging the worst-case scenario all the time cabins in our kids but gives government regulators a very wide swath indeed.

Finding the Needle in that Haystack

needleinahaystack1.1Anyone who has tried to use the CPSC website knows that finding information there is no easy task. When I was a commissioner I would get regular calls from the public asking for help in locating public documents that were on the site but buried in sub-directories and illogical places.

Therefore, I am pleased that a law firm has taken on the helpful task of making some sense out of the agency’s website. You can find the “CPSC Navigator” at www.CPSCNavigator.com. While it is unfortunate that an agency that regularly talks about “transparency” makes it so difficult to find important information, I am glad that the private sector has stepped up to the challenge that the agency’s opaqueness presents.

Fixing Non-Problems, Take 2

Yesterday I directed your attention to an article by the former general counsel of the CPSC pointing out the legal and policy issues in the agency’s proposed rule revamping the requirements of the voluntary recall process.  She is not the only former senior manager of the agency to weigh in on the proposal.  Matt Howsare, former Chairman Tennenbaum’s chief of staff, has also discussed the serious issues inherent in the agency’s proposed approach.

I think that it is significant that two former senior agency staffers—one a career staffer and the other a political appointee of the majority party–are rejecting the notion that the proposal is merely a “tweak” of the process, as has been claimed by some commissioners, and instead characterize the proposal as a major overhaul of the voluntary recall process.  The agency leadership’s insistence on fixing what isn’t broken is very curious–and ominous–indeed.

Fixing Non-Problems; Creating New Ones

In an exercise that exemplifies a solution in search of a problem, the CPSC has proposed an interpretive rule that sets requirements for voluntary recalls.  I have questioned the wisdom of this activity on several occasions (see here and here).

I wanted to flag for readers an excellent analysis of the proposal written by the CPSC’s former general counsel, Cheryl Falvey. During her four year tenure at the CPSC, Ms. Falvey was a career employee, rather than a political appointee.  She understood the need to represent the Commission, not Commissioners.  She has laid out some of the practical concerns of the voluntary recall proposal in a very detailed and compelling manner.

With no evidence that the process is not now working, the Commission proposes requirements that may well make the voluntary recall process certainly less flexible and, most certainly, more adversarial.  Such a result would erode the trust that has been build up over the past 30 years as the agency and product sellers have worked cooperatively to make the marketplace safer for consumers. Public comments on this proposal are due February 4, 2014.

Companies Are Not The Enemy

It is gratifying to know that the folks at the CPSC do read my blog posts.   How do I know this?   My last post pointed to the statement, in a Fox News story about the Buckyballs lawsuit, of the agency spokesman denying that the agency “punished enemies”.  Apparently today the story was changed so that the agency is now denying that it punishes companies, not enemies. Since this change was pointed out to me by the agency spokesman, I want readers also to be aware of this change.

In the minds of some this may be a distinction without a difference. Craig Zucker of course, would be one of those who does not see a difference and it is easy to see why.  At the same time that small powerful magnetic desk toys are being sold legally across the country, the agency has demanded in a law suit that the magnetic product he distributed be recalled, and since his company is now out of business, that Zucker, one of the founders of the company, personally undertake this recall.  While two manufacturers have volunteered to do recalls of small magnets, I understand that only a handful have actually been returned.   In other words, the agency has put a company out of business and now has brought a lawsuit in order to accomplish a recall of a product that consumers apparently do not want to part with–a recall that the agency should know will not be effective.

I could go on about the questionable actions of the agency. The obvious prejudgment of both the law suit and the related rulemaking and the inappropriate extension of the “responsible corporate officer” doctrine are just two examples.   But I have written about these issues before.  For the purposes of this post, please rest easy knowing that the CPSC only punishes companies, not enemies.

A CPSC Enemies List?!

This morning, Fox News had a story on the ongoing saga of Craig Zucker, founder of the company selling the Buckyballs magnetic adult desk toy, who is refusing the CPSC’s demand that he personally conduct a recall of that product.  The CPSC is alleging that the product is defective because children have been injured by swallowing the small powerful magnets  even though the product is designed and marketed for adults and has warnings all over the box about the dangers of ingesting magnets.  Since the agency put the company out of business, it is now suing Mr. Zucker individuallenemies listy to make him recall the product.

The reason this particular story caught my eye, however, is the sentiment stated in the story and attributed to the CPSC spokesman that the agency was trying “to keep a dangerous product from children, not to punish enemies. “  That the agency thinks of those who challenge it as enemies is troubling, to say the least.

The agency is not used to being challenged and Mr. Zucker’s tactic of using humor to point to the weaknesses of the government’s case is unexpected.  Yet to brand as an enemy someone who does not capitulate and who forces the government to prove its case, even after that same government has forced him out of business, goes way beyond appropriate behavior.  If the sentiment is as stated in the story, then this is a frightening development.

 

 


Enter your email address to subscribe to my blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 905 other followers

Nancy's Photos

More Photos

  • 56,739 visits

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 905 other followers