Archive for the 'Operating Plan' Category

Navigating An Unmarked Channel

 

Last week, Commissioners Buerkle and Mohorovic each issued a statement on a civil penalty settlement involving glass tumblers manufactured by Teavana.  Each is a thoughtful statement and both should be read by anyone interested in how the agency does its work.  They can be found here and here.  Both Commissioners address, in somewhat different ways, the subjective nature of the Consumer Product Safety Act’s reporting requirements and the opaqueness of the agency’s process for determining penalty amounts for violations of provisions of the Act that require product sellers to report potential safety issues to the agency.  Both are concerned about the secrecy of the criteria, if any, applied in assessing penalties by an agency that used to pride itself on its openness and transparency.

Commissioner Buerkle points out that–given the subjective nature of the statute– the regulations defining, first, what factors will affect a penalty amount and, second, how those factors will be applied, become critically important.  As one who was directly involved in developing that regulation, I agree that it is probably too general in nature, given that the agency has done little to flesh out its applicability in real cases.  Instead the agency has just nodded its head in the regulation’s direction to justify what appear to be arbitrary penalty amounts. The publicly-stated desire of Commission leadership for higher penalties leaves one thinking that the penalty policy of this commission is “get as much as you can” and not that “the punishment should fit the crime.” Consequently, one can only conclude that the penalty factors in the regulation are window dressing to justify whatever the enforcement staff demands.

Commissioner Mohorovic stated that the agency is falling down in its consumer protection duties by not putting out clear buoys to mark the legal channel.  As I have written before, the simplistic agency mantra—“when in doubt, report”—does not work so easily with today’s commission, which is more intent on punishment than on true safety.  Commissioner Mohorovic makes a persuasive case that the company did not have any obligation to report in the first place.  The products in question are glass tumblers and there is always a risk that glass will break, especially when holding hot liquids.  Apparently there were only minor injuries. There is no reason to believe the glass was inordinately thin or fragile.  Based on all this, Commissioner Mohorovic concludes that the company had no obligation to report, but agency enforcement staff reached a decidedly different conclusion.  The result was a $3.75 million penalty against the company, and we are left with no understanding as to how the agency got to that figure.

The agency has announced that it will hold a hearing this summer to consider its priorities for the upcoming fiscal year.  Here is a suggestion:  given the growing concern over the secrecy surrounding how penalties in ever-increasing amounts are assessed, a review of the agency’s penalty factors regulation is warranted.  The clarity the agency was seeking in 2010 when this regulation was issued has not happened; instead the process has become much less clear.  Perhaps it is time to consider a matrix approach to civil penalties—that is, putting a value on, and applying that value to different types of violations.  The practices of other agencies may also provide some learning here.  There are probably many ways to make the situation better and the agency should spend some time trying to figure this out.

Crunch Time at the CPSC

We all know about crunch time—when it becomes apparent that projects are getting backed up and everyone is going to have to work like dogs to try to get the work done. Well, as summer fades and autumn beckons from around the corner, it’s crunch time at the CPSC. While no one can be certain (because deadlines can get pushed in any bureaucracy), based on our FY13 Operating Plan and the Mid-year Update, here are some of the issues I anticipate will soon be hitting our desks for decisions:

  • Final Rule on rare earth magnets;
  • Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the CPSC staff’s role in voluntary standards committees;
  • Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on voluntary recalls;
  • Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for § 1101 with changes related to §6(b) of the Consumer Product Safety Act (CPSA) about public disclosure of information obtained under CPSA;
  • Final Rule for § 1110 Certificates of Conformity; and
  • Operating Plan for Fiscal Year 2014 (which begins October 1st).

We will have busy times ahead with important regulatory issues. Get ready to comment, participate, and track where appropriate.

Actions, Not Just Words

Government is known for “taking action” by commissioning studies, and the CPSC apparently strives to live up to that reputation. This is well illustrated by the way the agency is pretending to follow congressional direction to figure out ways to reduce testing costs: we repeatedly are asking the public for ways to reduce costs but without the promise of taking any action. Perhaps we think that if we study the issue long enough, those suffering under the unwarranted costs we have imposed will be long out of business, consumers will just get used to overpaying for regulatory burdens, and the issue will go away.

Our testing and certification rule places enormous burdens on companies with too little benefit to consumers. In 2011, Congress and the President tried to focus the agency on the issue through Public Law 112-28, telling us to ask the public to help us find savings, fix what we could without weakening compliance, and ask for more authority if we needed it. We have been dragging our feet on that work, and the latest chapter—our Fiscal Year 2014 budget request—makes clear that we won’t pick up the pace anytime soon.

In this budget, the extent of our burden reduction effort is to acknowledge that P.L. 112-28 exists. I tried to get agreement on an amendment that would have added a statement that we “may undertake activity to reduce the burdens identified” and that our staff would, as appropriate, prepare briefing packages on specific proposals. Of course, I would have preferred stronger language, but I wanted my colleagues’ agreement to this small commitment to action and so I offered this as a compromise. My colleagues found that too bold, explaining instead that we had already fulfilled our obligations under the law, voluntarily followed up on some of the comments we received, and might do more in the future.

I do not concur with my colleagues’ cramped and nonsensical view that all the law requires is that we seek comments on how to reduce burdens. (Would Congress really have asked us to get public comments and not intend us to review, analyze, and act on them?) Once presented with real options for reducing burdens, we have an obligation to take some action. Since my colleagues were not willing to make even this small commitment I could not in good conscience support a budget that asks for more resources but ignores basic regulatory obligations, especially as other agencies expect cuts to their resources. (My official statement on the budget can be found here.)

In 2012, our staff suggested 16 (non-exclusive) ways to reduce testing burdens and in the FY13 operating plan, the Commission whittled its to-do list down to sending out further requests for more information on just four ideas. We’ve asked for comments upon comments. Information is good (and people should again respond to our request), but Congress wanted us to do something about costs, not just consider doing something at some future time.

In response to my objections, I’ve heard the “door is not closed” on reducing burdens. The tone underlying that statement is that we’ve already done what we need to do, but we might do more. As discussed, I don’t think we have done much at all, but let’s take the statement at face value. Is there any reason to believe the door isn’t closed? Agencies only do the work they budget for, and not designating any resources for testing burden reduction is a sign that we won’t be doing that work.

I’m also told the budget is not really the appropriate place for burden reduction, that our operating plan would be the better vehicle. If it’s like the FY13 operating plan, the next version won’t even be written until halfway through FY14, when most of our resources are already committed. That’s the regulatory equivalent of “when we get around to it.” It’s not consistent with either the law or our obligation as public servants to regulate with no heavier a hand than necessary to reduce unreasonable risks to consumers.

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.


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