Archive for October, 2012

Staying Safe After Sandy

While Sandy has come and gone, her devastation remains. As the East Coast begins the slow process of recovery, widespread problems like power outages will continue for days or weeks. Some of the interim solutions people may turn to—things like grills or portable generators—come with their own hazards that may not be obvious. The CPSC has issued a press release with some good safety tips that can help keep Sandy from causing any more suffering. You can find it here.

The Year Ahead

Under CPSC’s statutes, Commissioners serve seven-year terms, with the opportunity to remain in office one year past their terms’ expirations or until their successors are named, whichever occurs first. Though my term expires October 27, 2012, I will continue to serve until October 27, 2013, or until my successor is confirmed by the Senate.

My term has spanned a lot of change at CPSC, some of it good and some of it not-so-good. Under my initiative, we began an important surveillance program in our ports, signed the lease for a new modern testing laboratory, began a thorough review of our crib standards, and made numerous recommendations to the Congress on how to improve the agency’s execution of its mission to protect consumers.

I’ve also seen the passage of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, the most significant change in our statutes since the agency was created in 1972. I’ve seen my colleagues use that law as reason to show commendable enthusiasm but, unfortunately, run roughshod time and again over responsible process and thoughtful regulation. I’ve seen Congress pull back on the reins with last year’s H.R. 2715, directing us to do the kind of thinking we should have done on our own. I’ve even seen the White House ask us to start looking more at how our rules are actually functioning in the real world after we pass them, not just drop them on the market and move on to our next target, a request we largely ignored.

What will I see in the next twelve months?

Obviously, much of the answer to that question depends on the presidential election, as the candidates have outlined quite different visions of regulation. However, it also depends on you.

How are CPSC regulations affecting you, either as a consumer or as a business owner? Are there specific mandates that just don’t work? Are there standards we need to take a closer look at? Are we doing enough to reach out to the companies we regulate and the consumers we’re trying to keep informed?

I have no intention of just marking time in my last year. Not only do I have work I’d like to get done, I will also continue to lend my voice to the debate to improve CPSC’s rules, enforcement, and communication.

Talking Business

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of speaking at the 13th Annual Legal Reform Summit, hosted by U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform. I discussed regulatory review, cost-benefit analysis, and how little of each is happening at the CPSC.

Given the organization’s long and illustrious history, naturally, I wasn’t the first public official to speak to a Chamber audience about the administrative state. Here’s what one visitor had to say about 18 months ago: “[I]f there are rules on the books that are needlessly stifling job creation and economic growth, we will fix them.”

That speaker was President Obama, outlining an executive order on regulatory review. The order tells agencies like the CPSC to look at our rules and shed whatever wasn’t working or necessary. It envisions a regulatory system that “promot[es] economic growth, innovation, competitiveness, and job creation.” The order urges regulation “based on the best available science” that can “promote predictability and reduce uncertainty,” using “the best, most innovative, and least burdensome tools,” and taking “into account benefits and costs.”

The CPSC has failed every aspect of that order. Key recent rules stifle growth and discourage innovation. They also stifle competition and slant the playing field toward the biggest businesses. About the only jobs they create are for lawyers.

Here’s hoping that, regardless of what happens November 6th, we’ll see a renewed effort from the White House to bring CPSC into compliance with prudent government. Here is an article about my presentation at this meeting.

Voices from Outside the Echo Chamber

A regulator’s job description should include a requirement to get out of the Washington echo chamber, from time to time, to visit and talk with folks who have to live with our mandates. That is one of the best ways we have to gauge if regulations make sense out in the real world and if there are any issues surfacing as companies work to comply with the law. Last week I was on the road, having just those kinds of conversations.

The ABC Kids Expo was a wonderful opportunity to talk one-on-one with smaller companies who make a wide variety of infant and children’s furniture and other products. Without exception, these companies expressed a strong commitment to safety. This makes sense because many of the companies represented were started by entrepreneurial parents who saw either a need going unmet or a way to improve a product. While these companies were very pleased and eager to get whatever information we can offer on how to comply with our rules, I also heard concerns about both the process of writing the rules and the substance of the rules themselves. For example, the agency, working with the voluntary standards bodies, has been issuing the Congressionally-directed durable infant and toddler products regulations at a rapid pace.  Yet there is growing concern, which I heard expressed again last week, that this is resulting in a process that is less rigorous, at times more arbitrary and more error-prone than it used to be. Certainly, this is something that warrants greater attention at the CPSC.

I also spent time at the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association Expo, talking with the association’s Board of Directors, conducting a safety seminar and walking the show floor talking with individual members of this very complex and dynamic industry. Here are some of the key points I took home:

  • Overall, component testing is not working as the cost saver we hoped for this industry;
  • CPSIA-required testing is posing challenges in terms of expense and frustration as companies test for substances that are not present but do not fit into the exemptions; and
  • Testing variability among labs, in particular with respect to phthalates testing, is adding time and expense to the process, and is consuming resources in an unproductive manner.

While there are some very large players, the bulk of the industry is made up of small, domestic companies. Because of the nature of the business, the small batch testing exemption does not apply. One small business owner, with fewer than 10 employees, told me of needing to add an employee to do nothing but administer and document his testing and regulatory compliance program. Another told me that since children’s garments were not a major part of his business, he has decided just to get out of that aspect of the business altogether rather than have to hassle with all the rules.

I am concerned when I hear reports like that. Congress directed us to look at ways to cut costs. I suspect that, if and when we get serious with a commitment to action, taking that directive seriously, rather than just playing charades with that directive, we will find that there is ample opportunity to provide some real relief. In the meantime, with no boost to safety, the clock is ticking on the existence of numerous U.S. based low-volume businesses and their employees’ livelihoods.

A Good Start

At today’s CPSC hearing, we followed the direction Congress gave us a year ago to look for ways to cut the burdensome costs of our testing and certification rule while assuring compliance with applicable safety rules.

We identified several initial steps that will hopefully lead to trimming some of the testing costs for some of the companies we regulate.  I am pleased our staff took its mandate seriously and identified some of the places in the rule where we could save consumers a little money on the things they buy for their children. I understand the list staff developed was not meant to be all inclusive and that there are certainly other good ideas that might also lead to cost reduction while assuring compliance. I had hoped today’s list would have been more inclusive of these other ideas, but at least it is a start.

If you watched the meeting, you heard the chorus of Commissioners thank our staff for their hard work, but it bears repeating. This agency is able to do its work because of the talent, skill, and dedication to protecting the public that our staff demonstrates every day.

You can read my statement on it here

Empty Chairs

Agency watchers have surely noted the thinning of our senior management ranks. No director of compliance; no replacement for a deputy executive director; no general counsel. While staff are acting admirably yet temporarily in these roles, this growing leadership vacuum is troubling and needs to be addressed.  The empty chairs are starting to stack up.

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