Industry and Republican Allies Gear up to Fight Moderate Consumer Health and Safety Bill

by David Arkush and Graham Steele

Republicans and Democrats in the Senate recently spent weeks

negotiating a moderate, bipartisan consumer product safety bill, the “CPSC

[Consumer Product Safety Commission] Reform Act of 2007” (S. 2663). After

these negotiations concluded, and with the bill cued go to the Senate

floor soon, industry is making a last-ditch effort to derail or further weaken it. This week, Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) and a few other Senate Republicans, apparently playing the role of mouthpiece for industry, circulated a strategy packet for defeating the CPSC bill. The packet includes a

list of “Top Ten Reasons to Oppose the CPSC ‘Reform’ Act,” which is riddled

with misstatements about the bill. Apparently, industry knows it can’t win an

honest debate against an important consumer safety law, so it’s going dirty.

Consumer safety is a serious issue, worthy of an honest and fair

debate. Senators Mark Pryor (D-AR) and Ted Stevens (R-AK) had that discussion

and, with input from their fellow Senators, constituents, industry, and consumer groups, they

arrived at a bipartisan compromise. The bill doesn’t give any stakeholder everything

it wants — we certainly urge that the bill be strengthened — but it makes real

improvements to current law. For example, the bill increases the CPSC’s budget and

staff (which are currently at about half their original levels), adds whistleblower

protection, creates a public database of consumer complaints like NHTSA’s,

increases penalties for violations, and permits state attorneys general to

bring enforcement actions to supplement the CPSC’s notoriously lax enforcement.

At the same time, industry already has succeeded in blocking and diminishing the effectiveness of many important provisions. For example, the

bill’s civil-penalty cap was slashed from $100 million to $10 million (or $20

million in “aggravated” circumstances). This number is grossly inadequate to deter

companies from ignoring their legal duty to report potential hazards to the

CPSC. Manufacturers and retailers have a strong financial incentive to violate

the reporting laws because disclosing

a hazard can provoke a costly recall. Recalls can cost hundreds of millions of

dollars. To

save that kind of money, it makes sense to risk a $10 or $20 million fine.

This kind of gaming the system leaves the public dangerously in the dark about potentially deadly risks.

Similarly, although the bill gives state attorneys general the power to enforce

federal law, industry has succeeded in limiting them to seeking only injunctive

relief, not fines. Suffice it to say, industry is getting plenty of what it

wants in this bill.

Senators should know that the DeMint strategy — and especially the top ten list — is a flimsy hit job. Arguing against a moderate,

bipartisan consumer safety bill is bad policy, and bad politics. Do so at your

own peril.

We are following this bill closely and plan to blog more about industry’s attempts to weaken and block it, so stay tuned. In the meantime, you can learn more about the legislation here.