Senate Votes to Strengthen CPSC

On Thursday, the Senate approved legislation that will boost funding for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, increase the agency’s enforcement power, and effectively ban lead in all children’s products. The House bill passed in December contained similar provisions, although that chamber raised the maximum fine for companies that fail to report product hazards immediately to only $10 million, compared to a Senate cap of $20 million. Compared to the current maximum of $1.8 million, though, those are both big improvements.

There are some ways in which the Senate bill is markedly tougher than the House bill, though – and tougher than what the White House wants. The Washington Post’s Annys Shin explains:

The differences that remain involve which federal safety laws state attorneys general would be able to enforce, whether to grant whistle-blower protection to corporate employees, and which information would be included in a public database of product-safety incidents. The White House and the nation’s largest manufacturers oppose giving state attorneys general too much leeway to interpret federal safety regulations, and they oppose whistle-blower protection, which they contend would encourage needless litigation.

In CQ Politics, Aliya Sternstein highlights the difference in the state enforcement:

In the House version, state attorneys general would be permitted to enforce product safety legislation only after the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issues a decision, such as a recall. The Senate language goes a step further by empowering state attorneys general to enforce regulations by making their own interpretative decisions before the CPSC acts.

Sternstein reports that bill sponsor Senator Mark Pryor chose to keep the legislation focused on the CPSC and not use it to address food safety concerns, including Barbara Boxer’s efforts to bar diacetyl-containing microwave popcorn. And she notes that three Senators – Tom Coburn, John Cornyn, and Jim DeMint – “supported numerous changes intended to make the bill more industry-friendly,” but were unsuccessful.

Although this legislation might fall into the category of “things most people would be surprised to learn don’t already exist,” Shin points out that it’s the most far-reaching change to our product-safety system in a generation, and that it would have been a remote possibility just a year ago. Over the past year, though, we’ve learned about all kinds of problems:  toys containing lead, dangerous magnets, and a chemical that metabolizes into the so-called date rape drug gamma hydroxy butyrate; dangerous amusement park rides; waterproofing sprays that cause respiratory problems; cribs that put infants at risk of suffocation; and defective BB guns that have killed 15 people.

Of course, this legislation can only do so much when the person in charge of the agency doesn’t want to use the enhanced enforcement power. But at least this legislation (which Sternstein says may be finalized in July) will let the CPSC hire more staff and improve its facilities, and perhaps the next administration will see fit to appoint a CPSC chair who makes protecting consumers a priority.

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