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White House's Product Safety Plan Impacts Industries Relying On Imports

Posted On: 12/17/2007

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WASHINGTON, DC -- Following a series of high-profile recalls of imported  consumer products that have included children's toys and pet food, both the White House and Congress are preparing to take action.

Following the Senate's approval of the CPSC Reform Act in October (see VT, November), the House has introduced a companion bill that is currently before the Senate. Called the Consumer Product Safety Modernization Act of 2007 (HR 4040), the legislation aims to establish an outline for reforming the nation's consumer product safety system.

 The new bill includes provisions that would increase funds and staffing for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, ban products containing lead beyond trace amounts, enable third-party testing and certification for children's products, increase liability for manufacturers and require tracking labels for certain products.

The bipartisan legislation, which proponents say will markedly increase safety of both domestic and imported products, was introduced by Committee on Energy and Commerce chairman, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-MI), and ranking member Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), as well as Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection chairman Bobby Rush (D-IL) and ranking member Cliff Stearns (R-FL). The bill had a bipartisan group of 46 cosponsors.

"The Consumer Product Safety Commission is hampered both in lack of authority and in resources to address crucial consumer protection issues faced by our citizens," Dingell said."I believe that HR 4040 will go far to alleviate these problems, as well as strengthen the CPSC to meet the responsibilities under its jurisdiction. I remain committed to ensuring that the Committee on Energy and Commerce produces a thoughtful, well-intentioned, and effective bill that will make crucial improvements in the CPSC to strengthen its ability to protect our Nation's consumers."

The proposed legislation is the product of several months of research and investigations into the recent widespread findings of lead in children's products imported from China, as well as the nation's system for recalling defective or tainted products. In August 2007, the Committee sent letters to 19 retailers and importers requesting information on their findings of lead.

However, the Bill, which calls for a significant increase in funding and responsibilities for the CPSC, has evoked criticism by the commission's acting head, Nancy Nord. As reported by The New York Times and in Senate hearings, Nord voiced the opinion that the changes demanded by the Bill would be too difficult to administer, prompting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and several others in the House to demand her resignation.

The agency, said the Senators, has been in decline in terms of budget and staffing for years. Today the CPSC boasts some 420 staffers, approximately half the number it had in the 1980s. And, as noted in the Senate hearings, the CPSC currently employs only 15 inspectors assigned to monitor what last year was estimated at some $614 billion of imports and consumer products that fall under the its authority, with only a single full-time employee assigned to the testing of toys. The state of the agency, which has gone largely unnoticed over the years, elicited sharp criticism from consumer advocates as well as major media outlets.

At the same time, President Bush presented the recommendations of his Import Safety Working Group for overhauling the CPSC. These include an enhanced certification process, increased U.S. presence overseas, strengthened penalties for violators, enhanced safety standards and tougher inspections for imports deemed "risky."  

The formal announcement of the Working Group's plan was made during a White House forum on international trade and investment.

"We will focus on stopping dangerous products from reaching our border in the first place," Bush said in introducing the proposal. "The American people expect our system of import safety to be strong and effective and we will work to make sure it is."

However, critics say that the plan contains few substantive measures. "I am pleased the President finally recognizes the threat of tainted imports to consumers. Unfortunately, there is little new information in today's announcement. In fact, the critical issue of funding is curiously absent from the proposal," said Dingell. "The Congress is now considering legislation to provide the necessary authority and funding for these agencies to begin to protect the public safety. I invite President Bush to join in support of such legislation. I also plan to hold a hearing on these proposals at the earliest possible date to determine whether they respond to the problems our Committee has uncovered since the beginning of the year."

While both sides continue to push their respective plans, Washington pundits don't expect significant action by either Congress or the White House before the start of 2008.