January 15, 2010

CPSC's First Year Under Obama: An Agency Still Finding Its Feet

This post is second in a series on the new CPR report Obama’s Regulators: A First-Year Report Card.

It’s only fair to note that when President Obama assumed office in January of 2009, he inherited a slate of dysfunctional protector agencies. Perhaps none were more dysfunctional than the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)—the tiny agency charged with protecting all Americans from literally tens of thousands of different kinds of dangerous products, everything from backyard barbecues and electric drills to swimming pool slides and baby dolls. The Obama Administration had a lot of work to do if it was to make good on the president's promise of whipping agencies like CPSC into shape so that they could effectively protect public health and safety. As CPR found in its new report, CPSC’s performance fell short of achieving this goal, however.

Given the difficult challenges CPSC faced, we should not be surprised that the agency’s actual performance was mixed. Indeed, the odds were heavily stacked against CPSC: its budget and staff has been constantly shrinking for decades; until recently, it has had little real legal authority to ensure the safety of consumer products (the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 gave the agency more authority to hold manufacturers accountable for their dangerous products, but it is far from perfect); and its regulatory mission is always becoming more difficult (e.g., more consumers, more products, more imports from countries with no or only lax regulatory standards, etc.). President Obama didn’t do enough to help either. While he gave the agency a badly needed injection of committed leadership, he failed to request more than a nominal increase in budgetary resources. If President Obama wants CPSC to behave more vigorously, he will clearly need to do more to reinvigorate the struggling agency, and providing greater resources is an essential component of doing just that.

CPSC’s response to the issue of toxic toy imports exemplifies the agency’s mixed record this past year. On the one hand, CPSC took important steps forward on this issue, such as requiring toy manufacturers to label their products with information regarding who made the toy, and where. Of course, it would be better if toy manufacturers simply made safer toys, but at least these labels will enable parents to make better informed choices on which toys they should purchase if they want to avoid those that might contain toxic contaminants. Furthermore, new agency head, Inez Tenenbaum, has worked to coordinate with toy manufacturers and public health officials in China to improve the safety of their products at the source.

In other ways, however, CPSC really fumbled the issue of toy safety. Most notably, the agency has implemented the third-party testing requirements program for children’s products poorly. Under this program, manufacturers and importers must have independent investigators test their products to ensure that they meet federal limits on lead and phthalates—two toxic substances that are particularly harmful to children. CPSC has struggled with how it will apply the testing requirements to smaller businesses and those that deal with secondhand products, such as consignment shops and thrift stores. As a result, the agency has repeatedly delayed implementation of this requirement, first until February of 2010 and then until February of 2011, disappointing parents and child safety advocates alike. Likewise, CPSC has failed to exercise its authority to exempt certain products that are obviously lead and phthalate free from the testing requirements. That was an authority that Congress gave the agency to make implementation of this program easier.

As illustrated by its performance on toxic toys, CPSC’s work during President Obama’s first year in office was less than stellar. Yet, one cannot ignore how CPSC—for the first time in years—is heading in the right direction. The agency has enhanced legal authority that it has desperately needed; now if only President Obama can do his part by securing CPSC a needed increase in resources, then the future of this important little agency—and, indeed, for all American consumers—will be a lot a brighter.

James Goodwin, Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Progressive Reform. Bio.

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