Archive for the 'Small Business' Category

Saying Goodbye to Another CPSC Star

Several weeks ago, Neal Cohen, the CPSC small business ombudsman, called to tell me that he was leaving the agency.  Neal created the job of ombudsman and it turned out to be one of the most difficult and most under-appreciated but critically important positions at the CPSC.

The office of small business ombudsman was set up in 2010 in an effort to respond to the growing cries, especially from the small business community, that the agency’s regulations implementing the 2008 CPSIA statute were imposing a crushing burden on product sellers, notably small businesses.  When the office was set up, I argued that it should be a true ombudsman, bringing to the agency the concerns of small businesses as well as developing and advocating for solutions to the problems that community faced because of agency action.  Instead, the office was designed to be an outreach and education office—to help the small business community understand and comply with regulations.   While not fully meeting the true definition of an ombudsman, this still was a very important role, especially given the complexity of the rules the agency was in the midst of writing.  And Neal was just the right person to fill the position.

Over the past five years, Neal has worked tirelessly to make sure that businesses, especially small ones, understand their safety obligations as product sellers.  He has designed educational programs, given presentations throughout the country, answered thousands of emails and phone calls, and through that process, has helped the agency put a human and caring face on its work.  The latest achievement of his office, development of the Regulatory Robot, an on-line tool to help businesses understand what regulations they are subject to, will continue to be a testament to his dedication and hard work.

Whoever follows Neal in this role will have big shoes to fill but also a very good role model for how to get done a difficult but important job.  February 19, 2016 will be Neal’s final day at the agency. And as Neal leaves federal service to go into the private sector, no doubt he will come to understand even more the important public service he provided.

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Unfinished Business

In Washington, sometimes repeating something often enough seems to make it true. We see this phenomenon working in the press stories and speeches marking the CPSIA’s fifth anniversary last month.

Although the law has its strengths and weaknesses, the real story is the unrealistic tack that the CPSC has taken in implementing the CPSIA, changing difficult circumstances into nearly impossible ones. Operating from the assumption that if some regulation is good, then more must be better, the agency embarked on a course that seeks to cover all risks—real, speculative, or imagined—rather than crafting regulations to address known unreasonable risks of injury. That our regulations go well beyond what the new law requires is not a fact that seems to concern us. 

One problem with this approach is how divorced it is from the real world. Our regulations are overly-broad and so ultra-complex that only companies with swarms of lawyers can hope to fully understand and comply with them. Thus questions necessarily arise as to how to truly comply with our regulations. And, of course, those questions have been pouring into the agency.

This issue is brought home by a new report from the Handmade Toy Alliance documenting the experiences of small toy manufacturers and importers under the CPSIA and CPSC’s implementation of it over the past five years. HTA members are those who bring excitement, creativity, and imagination to the world of play. None of the products they make presented the safety issues that prompted the CPSIA. Yet this group has felt the brunt of the law more severely than others. Here are some of their observations about the impact of the CPSC’s implementation of the law:

  • “The [testing] rule overwhelmingly favors large manufacturers at the expense of smaller ones. . . . A small business owner could develop what they believe is a reasonable testing program, but it is unlikely to meet the CPSC’s strict interpretation.” HTA points out that we have designed a rule that tilts to the benefit of the large company and which small companies cannot meet.
  • Due to the onerous nature of the requirements, many small businesses will choose “the path of least resistance—to continue doing what they have done for years to assure they produce a safe product [and] use their experience and wisdom to guide design and manufacture, and [to] form relationships with their customers. . . . [S]ome portions of the requirements are adhered to and others are ignored because of costs and complexity.” In other words, small producers will focus on safety and only selectively comply with those portions of our rules they can meet or understand. Creating rules that do not improve safety but contribute to an approach of selective noncompliance is dereliction of our duty as regulators and stands rational regulatory policy on its head.
  • Further, some “handmade toy makers have simply gone out of business or chosen to make products that are not designed for children because the CPSIA and subsequent relief efforts preserve a hurdle too high for small business to clear.” I wonder why those who are praising the passage of the CPSIA find this to be a good result.

Are these not serious flaws attributable to the CPSIA and the agency’s implementation of it? I believe so and they are compounded by this agency’s unwillingness—through over two years of procrastination—to address the unnecessary burdens of our rules as we were directed to do by the Congress. The public has identified ways to ease the burdens, our staff has identified ways to ease the burdens, and I have even added to the list—yet we have not taken any action to implement concrete suggestions, all the while ignoring congressional directions to take action. The HTA report contains a list of actions the agency could take that would ease the burdens of small producers while maintaining safety.

HTA concludes, “The missteps of a few very large toy companies precipitated regulations which damaged thousands of small and micro U.S. businesses and continues to encumber those that survive. . . . Congress and the CPSC must move forward with meaningful solutions that are funded and given priority.”

I have raised these issues with my colleagues repeatedly (and as recently as this month when we voted on our upcoming regulatory agenda). I have been repeatedly outvoted and told that reducing the burdens of our regulations is not a priority of the agency. Again, I ask, when will we turn our attention to correcting the problems we made?

More Than Just Listening

CPSC recently held a public hearing to get input from stakeholders about its agenda and priorities for FY 2014 and FY 2015. We heard from two panels of consumer advocates and manufacturers’ associations. Many thought-provoking subjects were discussed. I found the topic of child safety in low-income households, raised by the Consumer Federation of America, to be an important challenge to address, not just at CPSC, but across the federal government. (As I have written before in this blog, some of our current policies risk pricing low-income consumers out of safety.)

Two other topics were particularly noteworthy. The Handmade Toy Alliance (HTA) said that signing up for the “small batch manufacturer” registry—exempting them from certain third-party testing requirements—did not substantially ease their burden. Even though they were technically exempt from third-party testing, HTA’s members still must meet various statutory limits and, crucially, are often unable to do adequate testing without engaging third-party testing labs. Further, HTA pointed out the requirement added by the Commission to post on its website the name of every company that received this exemption was a deterrent to companies to participate and thereby have their business data posted. It is no surprise, then, that although we expected upwards of 30,000 companies to sign up, only about 500 are have so far.

Another issue raised by HTA, as well as the Toy Industry Association (TIA) and the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), was the need for CPSC to dedicate resources, pursuant to Congress’s direction in Public Law 112-28, to implement measures that reduce testing burdens while still ensuring compliance with safety standards. To date, the Commission has no specific commitment to action in FY 2014 and FY2015 to reduce testing costs. The Commission previously defeated my amendment which would have allowed for more action.

I hope that we will listen to our stakeholders’ pleas—and Congress’s direction—and do the hard work to improve safety for more Americans while minimizing the burden we place on the American economy.

It’s He-ere . . .

Today, the CPSC’s children’s product periodic testing and certification rule goes into effect. Perhaps the most sweeping rule in the agency’s history, it was spurred by 2008’s Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. Even before becoming effective, it has substantially affected the agency, the regulated community, and consumers. Starting today, those effects will grow.

After much debate about its details (more on that shortly), the rule is now the law. It sets massive new requirements for the CPSC’s regulated community. To comply with it, companies and labs should have developed systems and procedures to comply with the new requirements and these should all now largely be in place.

Even so, tweaks to those systems will, of course, be necessary. Some of those changes are things that manufacturers and labs can take care of on their own. Others, however, will probably require attention from agency staff and from the Commission. As you encounter problems with this rule, make sure that the agency and I hear about them. Your voice can make a difference. Already, based on pre-implementation concerns, both Congress and the CPSC have made changes to the rule. And as the rule now goes into effect, we can only expect more concerns to be revealed. When they arise, let us know about them.

Of course, as readers of this blog already know, this rule is not my ideal rule. During the many debates leading up to today, I have already filled enough of this space discussing my disagreements with the Commission’s decisions to belabor them here in any detail. To sum it up, I believe we overstated the necessity for third-party testing, ignored opportunities to make the rule more effective, created “gotcha” traps for companies, and paid lip-service to Congress’s demands that we look to make it less expensive. The result is an unwieldy rule that (because of its name) might make consumers feel safer, but holds only speculative hopes of actually making them safer. All the while, they now have the certainty of fewer choices at higher prices.

Yet, though I remain concerned about the unnecessary damage this rule threatens—and as I continue to work to improve it—make no mistake: It is the law. Companies must heed it even where they disagree with it, and violators should expect a visit from our compliance staff. We have lots of resources for helping businesses understand this rule and how to meet its demands, especially for small businesses. If you have not already figured out your plans for complying with the rule, hurry up and fix that. We surely will all learn a lot along the way, but there is no more time for waiting.

CPSC & Birthday Suits

Few images in life are more innocently adorable than a toddler scampering about in the buff, enjoying life at its simplest and freest. The good news from the CPSC is that you might be seeing that image a lot more. The bad news is that parents might not have much choice in the matter. (A bit of overstatement I will admit, but the principle holds. See below.) 

As I mentioned last week, at least some apparel manufacturers are opting to exit the children’s market rather than brave our labyrinthine minefield of children’s product rules. These requirements, which are arcane to trained lawyers and incomprehensible to most other people, have also forced micro-businesses focused on children’s clothing to cut back or to shut down completely. Thanks to our staff, we knew this sort of thing was coming, and with little if any benefit, but my colleagues decided to forge ahead anyway.

No one should be surprised when business slows or even stops under a regime in which a company must send out even the safest product for round after round of testing, destroying stacks of samples in the process, to make sure each product complies with rules that may have no real bearing on safety, then fell entire electronic forests to document the process.  After all this a company must still live with the risk that our own post hoc judgment is the final arbiter of whether you tested enough.

The entrepreneurial spirit will keep some business owners searching for a solution. We’ve heard of some small businesses that are banding into buying cooperatives to spread the cost of testing. While it is encouraging that the fierce perseverance of American entrepreneurs will seek to overcome the challenges we throw at them, we should not forget that every dollar these companies spend trying to meet our demands is a dollar they can’t spend on any other part of their business, including research to improve product safety. This is a solution to a problem we caused with our testing rule that, in many respects, was its own solution in search of a problem. We required far more than was necessary to ensure compliance with our safety rules, and we left it to the businesses we regulate to figure out how to make it work.

We’ve already missed several opportunities to fix this. We paid lip service (if even that) to the President’s suggestion that we look in our universe of rules for ones we could stand to lose, and we were too modest in our congressionally-mandated examination of our testing rule, the 300-pound gorilla in our regulations. I hope we’ll heed the cries from the market before they turn to silence and kids’ clothes racks—and kids themselves—are bare.

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.


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