So long, product safety

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) just ceased to exist. Well, not quite - but it might as well have. Thanks to Bush’s bungling and foot-dragging by congressional Democrats, the panel - which regulates about 15,000 different products - missed a key deadline this week to replace its departed chairman. In doing so, it forfeited its right to issue new safety standards, demand mandatory product recalls, or issue fines against companies that breach its rules.

That could be the coup de grace for the CPSC, which is already plagued by chronic underfunding, and this week came under fire for taking months to tell the public about dangerous products. To make matters worse, current rules allow companies to sue if the CPSC reveals the risks inherent in their products - and often just the threat of legal action is enough to force the commission to sound the retreat.

At the heart of this week’s meltdown are the CPSC’s quorum rules: unless at least three commissioners are present at its meetings, it can’t operate with full authority. That’s a problem: The commission’s former chairman resigned a year and a half ago, and we’re still waiting for a replacement.

That was fine for a while - the rules allow a six-month quorum waiver when a commissioner departs - but the grace period lapsed at the start of last year. It took Bush until March to get round to nominating a new CPSC chair - and when he did, it was Michael Baroody, chief lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers.

Unsurprisingly, Senate Democrats balked at the prospect of putting an industry insider in charge of America’s main product-safety watchdog, and ten weeks later Baroody was forced to withdraw his nomination. Bush apparently took offense, and refused to propose an alternative; it wasn’t until August, when Arizona Democrat Mark Pryor pushed through a temporary waiver of the quorum rules, that the CPSC was able to get back to business.

Now, though, the quorum waiver has lapsed once more - and we’re still not closer to a permanent fix. Bush is reportedly mulling another nominee: Gail Charnley, an industry consultant who’s previously been on the payroll of tobacco, energy, and pesticide companies. Again, it’s unlikely that Democrats will wave through an industry appointee, particularly so late in Bush’s second term.

With Bush apparently unwilling to propose a viable candidate, it’s up to congressional Democrats to take action. Legislation to renew the CPSC’s quorum waiver has passed in the House, and is under consideration in the Senate. Democrats should approve the bill, and quickly; our safety is at stake.

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