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When Reality Creeps Into Paradise

For fly fishermen, paradise has to be defined as casting for salmon in the pristine rivers and “loughs” of Ireland.  As a novice angler, I got a taste of paradise this past week fishingwhen I tried my hand “dapping” for salmon in a beautiful but utterly remote area of Connemara in western Ireland. (The salmon were quite safe while I was in the river.) At a totally-off-the-beaten-track fishing lodge, I meet an American couple who were also seeking a quiet corner of paradise.  As we talked, they told me they had sold their business and were taking a bit of time to decompress.  That is when reality came creeping in.

This couple had for many years imported toys which they sold in retail stores they owned in the middle and western part of the country. They also designed toys which were manufactured to their specifications in China and other parts of Asia for sale in their stores. With my gentle prodding, they told me that they took pride in being in compliance with all safety regulations and had never had a safety-related problem with any toy they designed or sold. They told me how much they loved their business and the joy their products brought to their customers.
When I asked them why they decided to sell their business, they said that they got out because of Proposition 65 and the CPSIA.  I was very surprised that they specifically mentioned those two laws so I pressed them further. They said testing and regulatory compliance costs had impacted the viability of the business.  This was exacerbated by marketplace confusion with complex regulations that were impossible to comply with with any certainty. They made a decision that they could not–and would not–deal with the potential compliance liability that the U.S. regulations had imposed.
I suppose that some will say that this couple was merely the unfortunate victim of a system designed to make the marketplace safer for all.  To those, I have to point out that the CPSC, in its testing and related regulations, made no attempt to find a balance between imposing regulations that address defined and documented risks as opposed to every conceivable risk, no matter how remote or undocumented, and, thus,  allow those businesses that sell safe products to flourish.  As evidence, just read the regulatory flexibility analysis that the agency economists did prior to promulgation of the testing rule which predicted that the regulation would result in market dislocations. Nevertheless, and not surprisingly, a majority of commissioners soundly ignored that predication. The testing regulation went much broader than the law required or that safety could justify. How does such a result benefit consumers?
I have not been shy in criticizing the inept efforts of the agency to identify and implement ways to reduce the burden of unnecessary testing.  The agency persists in nibbling around the edges of the problem rather than addressing the real problem  which is that the underlying regulations were written too broadly. Perhaps if the agency delays long enough, the casualties will have been taken and there will be no one left standing to complain about regulations that impose undue costs and burdens on American consumers.  But as most fishermen know, the reality is that if you cast too wide a net, you may end up killing more than you catch.

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

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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.


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