Archive for May, 2013

CPSC Safety Academy in Seattle

Last year, the CPSC held its first Safety Academy here in Washington D.C. The agency-sponsored event featured panels of experts, academics, and stakeholders addressing a wide range of issues facing the agency, including flammable fabrics, the 6(b) process, and the testing rule. The event was webcast, and many of the presentations are still available online if you missed them.

The event provided the regulated community, experts, and consumer advocates the opportunity to both learn from and engage with the agency on the important issues the agency has been working on. Educating the public on what we do here at the CPSC is a critical function—especially with the flood of complex rules that have been issued recently–so I am very pleased that we have decided to hold another open educational forum. This year, the CPSC is holding another Safety Academy in Seattle, Washington on September 18, 2013.

I strongly urge anyone on the West Coast who is interested in CPSC issues to attend. If you’d like to participate on a panel, you can e-mail your information and a short abstract to business@cpsc.gov by June 10th.

CPSC In Brief

The feature article in this month’s ABA Journal examines the CPSC from the agency’s inception to the present as we implement the CPSIA. It gives an interesting overview of the history of the agency, discusses recent controversial actions the Commission has taken, and provides readers with a good sense of the regulatory philosophy of the Commissioners. The article closes by noting the Commission will soon see an influx of new Commissioners, inviting speculation about the future direction of the agency.

In the Back Room or in the Open…

Where should policy be developed?

Recently, the Commission raised eyebrows around the product safety community by effecting what many see as a broad policy shift through two privately negotiated settlement agreements. Of course, I am referring to the issue of requiring all-inclusive compulsory compliance programs as a condition to settle alleged failure to report violations, using as a justification for this action the existence of past voluntary recalls. This blog is to bring you up to date on the state of play.

First, I had an exchange with my colleagues about our settlement with Kolcraft, where my colleagues insisted on adding the compulsory compliance program language at the last minute after an agreement had been reached between counsel for the company and the agency. I expressed my disagreement with the decision, while my colleagues jointly endorsed it. Second, mere weeks later, we approved a settlement with Williams-Sonoma that included the identical requirement. Though I voted to approve—on the basis that the company was well-represented and agreed of its own will—I still felt uneasy about using the enforcement vehicle for this apparent policy shift, undermining both the efficacy of the settlement and the legitimacy of the policy, which deserves public input. This began an “unusual” back-and-forth with one of my colleagues, with his statement, my supplemental statement, his supplemental statement, my further supplemental statement and so on, with the latest pingpong volley occurring today.

These settlements, the identical language they share, and the emerging policy they represent all demonstrate that this is an important issue. So important, in fact, that it’s a conversation we should be having more publicly and with more participants.

As I have stated many times, I fully support corporate compliance programs. They are one way a company can build a commitment to safety into all of its products. And there may be a role for CPSC in getting more companies to institute compliance programs, but, whatever that role is, it’s one we should play in public. If we are going to require them, we should not do that through privately negotiated settlement agreements but instead should engage the public in the conversation so that we fully understand the implications of this policy.

The whole purpose of a multi-member commission is to make sure various views are heard and rules are the product of engagement and discussion. So, let’s engage and discuss.

1110: Now It’s Your Turn

Last week, we talked about the shortcomings of the Commission’s proposed amendment to its Part 1110 rule on product certifications—hidden costs, confusion on bans and testing exemptions, recordkeeping disharmony, and questions not asked. Today, I issued my formal statement on the vote, which delves more deeply into the history of our first attempt at this rule and what we should have done this go-round.

That being said, I supported the broad outlines of this package. One key reason I voted to move ahead? I believe it’s high time we asked the public what to do about certificates. So now it’s your turn to let us know how we could improve this rule. Talk to me here, but more importantly, talk to the all of us at the Commission by submitting comments here.

1110 Series: Questionable Certitude

This week, I’ve examined the Commission’s shortcomings in proposed changes to Part 1110, our rule on certificates of compliance: we hid costs, we failed to clarify how certificates intersect bans and testing exemptions, and we created discordant “harmonization” in recordkeeping. Today, I’ll wrap up my thoughts on the proposal with three questions, one question my colleagues were willing to ask and two where they found the notion of hearing from you bafflingly uninteresting.

Electronic Records Access

The proposal requires electronic certificates to be in an accessible location without password protection and identified on the product, its packaging, or its invoice, so our staff, our partners at CBP, distributors, and retailers can have ready access. In principle, that requirement seems reasonable. My concern, however, is that this makes them available to everyone (something the statute does not require), even people who might use them for illegitimate purposes. We have included a request for comment on how to ensure easy access only for the people who need the certificates.

Direct-to-consumer International Sales

I recently purchased from a British company whose shoes are unavailable in the US. Who should certify them? The company, with no U.S. expertise (and, arguably, no legal title to them after they accepted my payment)? The shipper, with no direct knowledge? Me? And what value would that certificate have?

I wanted to consider exceptions for single transactions between entirely foreign companies and US consumers. I did not expect agreement on the idea, but I also did not expect vehement opposition to even thinking about it.

First, my colleagues worried reasonably that we lack the authority to make an exception. But this was merely a question, and we plainly have statutory authority for that. A lack of authority might be a hurdle to a solution, but it should not prevent us from exploring a problem. Second, they raised policy disagreements. Those are fine reason to vote against the policy but insufficient justification for squelching debate.

Redundant Certificates

I wanted to request comments about potential redundancy. For example, we have a rule governing small parts in toys for children 3 or under and a broader toy standard that incorporates that rule. As it stands, a certificate will have to show compliance with the overarching standard—which incorporates small-part compliance—and compliance with the small part rule. This redundancy adds to the proposal’s nearly half-billion dollar annual price-tag, so it we should at least inquire into its value.

My colleagues rejected the notion, calling my question “murky” and expressing preference for the status quo. With respect, dissatisfaction with language calls for improving it, not dismissing it wholesale, and defaulting to the status quo is the hallmark of unresponsive government. An idea that has outlived or exceeded its usefulness should not survive by inertia.

One colleague added that he was initially inclined to include my question, but reversed after our staff suggested redundancy eases enforcement. This is the kind of discussion we could and should have had with the public, and it demonstrates we lack information public comment could provide. Perhaps consensus would have formed that the enforcement benefits outweigh any waste, but we should solicit public input, not presume it.

Even though my colleagues were unwilling to ask these questions, nothing prevents you from answering them anyway. The comment period will run 75 days after the proposal hits the Federal Register, and we will all be better off the more we hear from the all corners of the public about what we got right and what we could do better.

While I have focused on issues raised in the public discussion of this proposed rule, there are other equally (if not more) important issues that need to be addressed.  For example, requiring electronic certificates is an important change that merits public input, as is the proposed mandate for common carriers, as “importers of record,” to be liable for certificates.  The new content requirements are also important changes.

I do hope that the agency will take the time and make the effort to craft a certification rule that improves safety without imposing undue burdens.  But if any hope of doing that demands public input. So, you need to provide that input, and we need to listen to it.

1110 Series: Recordkeeping Harmony or Agony?

I’ve been talking about some of the shortcomings of the Commission’s proposed update to our rule on certificates of compliance, Part 1110. I’ve looked at our unwillingness to present all the costs, our inability to provide clarity on certifying to bans, and our refusal to engage the public on how to handle testing exemptions. Today, my concern is with my colleagues’ break with our staff on recordkeeping for the certificates.

The 1110 rule requires manufacturers and importers to include certificates with their products attesting to the products’ tested compliance with all applicable CPSC safety standards. These can be Children’s Product Certificates or General Certificates of Conformity, depending on the product. Most CPC requirements are already covered in Parts 1107 and 1109, leaving GCCs to 1110. As proposed, this revision contains a one-size-fits-all requirement to keep GCCs for five years. On its own, this might not be a problem; we have to set a mark, and five years might be as good as three or seven. But we cannot look at this rule on its own, as my colleagues are unfortunately doing, because doing so creates unnecessary confusion.

This rule rests on the testing rules, and those rest on safety standards. These other rules frequently contain their own recordkeeping provisions. Our rule on flammability standards for mattresses, for example, requires manufacturers to test prototypes and then keep the records for as long as the product is on the market, plus three years. Those test records, then, could be discarded after four years or hang around for decades. Even within one product, the requirements that already exist vary with circumstance, and that variation exists throughout our regulatory arena.

Recognizing the differences in the standards’ requirements and my colleagues’ preferences for keeping records for longer, I proposed a compromise tying the retention requirement for GCCs to their underlying standards, defaulting to five years for any certificate based on a standard with no recordkeeping mandate. My colleagues did not agree, and insisted on a universal five-year mandate. Since CPCs all have a five-year minimum, they argued, imposing the same requirement for GCCs would “harmonize” our certificate rules.

“Harmonizing” requires that the notes be in the same key. Imposing one regulatory scheme’s parameters on another simply for the virtue of nominal similarity while ignoring their underlying differences is as unsound as “harmonizing” your children’s closets by giving them all the same size pants, no matter their ages. Yes, they’re in harmony, but someone’s going to wind up with a bad fit.

In this instance, the more valuable harmonization would have been matching the certificate’s retention time to that of the rule that creates the standard and the test on which that certificate is based. I was pleased my colleagues were at least willing to include a request for the public to comment on the recordkeeping retirement, and I hope they read those comments with open minds.

1110 Series: If We Wanted Your Opinion…

Over the past couple days, I’ve talked about how the Commission hid the ball on costs and actively avoided clarity for product bans when we proposed to amend our certificates of compliance rule, the 1110 rule. Today, the issue I wanted to highlight is not our failure to make the rule as intelligible as it should be; it’s my colleagues’ refusal to seek intelligibility in our own deliberative process, specifically in how the new rule will deal with products that are exempt from testing to any applicable safety standard.

Our staff originally proposed what I thought was an acceptable approach: If your product is subject to multiple rules and exempt from testing for only some of them, then you have to certify to the ones in force and claim your testing exemption(s) for the rest. But if your product is exempt from testing under any applicable standard—whether your product has one or more testing exceptions—you don’t need a certificate just to say that. To me, this seemed not only a reasonable opportunity to minimize unnecessary burdens but also more consistent with the law, which bases certificates on testing.  Requiring a certificate with no information other than an exemption is wasteful and contrary to the purpose of the testing regime.

My colleagues were uninterested in these benefits. Arguing that having more pieces of paper to shuffle would expedite work at the ports, they amended the proposed rule to require companies to create, provide, and maintain certificates that say nothing more than, “I’m exempt from testing to the standard.” Although I do not think such a certificate is necessary, I thought public input on the question could be helpful, so I proposed returning to the staff’s original language and asking for comment on the safety, efficiency, and cost implications of my colleagues’ approach. My colleagues were not interested in asking a question, and decided to plow ahead. (My colleagues did less-than-helpfully note that the public could still comment on the approach.)

The rule they insisted on might turn out to be the efficient one. We might hear from commenters that consistency in certificates is more useful than skipping hollow ones. What baffles me is my colleagues’ refusal to even solicit public input on the point, particularly when they are claiming benefits that, if real, the regulated community would likely endorse. Dogged refusal to invite any other perspectives is not the hallmark of reasoned decision-making.

Tomorrow, we’ll continue this discussion of the areas where the 1110 rule could use improvement before it’s final.


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