Sunday, September 02, 2007

Safety Agency Faces Scrutiny Amid Changes - New York Times

Safety Agency Faces Scrutiny Amid Changes - New York Times:

"Under the Bush administration, which promised to ease what it viewed as costly rules that placed unnecessary burdens on businesses, industry-friendly officials have been installed at agencies that oversee the nation’s workplaces, food suppliers, environment and consumer goods.

Top officials at the Consumer Product Safety Commission say they have enhanced protections for the American public in recent years. But they have also blocked enforcement actions, weakened industry oversight rules and promoted voluntary compliance over safety mandates, according to interviews with current and former senior agency officials and consumer groups and a review of commission documents.

At a time when imports from China and other Asian countries surged, creating an ever greater oversight challenge, the Bush-appointed commissioners voiced few objections as the already tiny agency — now just 420 workers — was pared almost to the bone.

At the nation’s ports, the handful of agency inspectors are hard pressed to find dangerous cargo before it enters the country; instead, they rely on other federal agents, who mostly act as trademark enforcers, looking for counterfeit Nike sneakers or Duracell batteries.

At the agency’s cramped laboratory, a lone employee is charged with testing suspected defective toys from across the nation. At the nearby headquarters, safety initiatives have been stalled or dropped after dozens of jobs were eliminated in budget cutbacks.

Other workers quit in frustration. The head of the poison prevention unit, for example, resigned when efforts to require inexpensive child-resistant caps on hair care products that had burned toddlers were delayed so industry costs could be weighed against the potential benefit to children.…

Congress intended the agency to protect the public by working with the industry and others to establish voluntary standards. Ms. Nord and industry executives say that system is largely effective, in no small measure because it is in companies’ self-interest to avoid turning out products that cause harm. When hazards arise, Ms. Nord says, she is confident that the agency acts to deal with them appropriately.

For the first time in years, the commission has drawn sustained attention because of the headlines generated in recent months by the seemingly endless recalls of Chinese-made products: Thomas & Friends toy trains, Mattel Sesame Street toys, propane grills, high chairs, computer batteries, lawn trimmers, children’s jewelry and tool kits.

But the agency has hardly been a priority of the Bush administration. The commission’s shrinking budget is just $62 million this year, even though the agency regulates an industry that sells $1.4 trillion annually. The Food and Drug Administration, with a $2 billion budget, spends nearly twice as much monitoring the safety of animal feed and drugs than the Consumer Product Safety Commission spends to ensure the safety of products as diverse as toys, tools and televisions used every day by millions of Americans.…

Speaking to lawmakers earlier this year, Thomas H. Moore, that commissioner, said, “The commission can either continue to decline in staff, resources and stature to the point where it is no longer an effective force in consumer protection, or with the support of Congress, it can regain the important place in American society that it was originally designed to have.”

Mr. Moore, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton, has often found himself outvoted in recent years as he pushed for tougher standards or more aggressive enforcement. In his appearance before Congress, he argued that the need for government protection of consumers is greater than ever before.

“It is suggested in some circles that the modern, sophisticated marketplace of today can effectively regulate itself for product safety,” Mr. Moore said. But, he added, “competition and voluntary actions of today’s businessmen do not always suffice to safeguard the public interest.”

Mr. Bush began delivering on his deregulatory agenda soon after arriving in Washington. He named Harold D. Stratton, a former attorney general of New Mexico, to head the consumer protection agency. Created by Congress in 1972 in the fervor of Ralph Nader’s consumer movement, the agency was long seen as an irritant by manufacturers and business groups.

A conservative Republican and a Bush campaign volunteer, Mr. Stratton strongly objected when he was an attorney general to counterparts in other states bringing consumer protection cases, saying they were trying “to impose their own antibusiness, pro-government regulation views.” Later, he was co-founder of a nonprofit group, the Rio Grande Foundation, which says it promotes “individual freedom, limited government, and economic opportunity.”

Soon after becoming commission chairman in 2002, Mr. Stratton told the National Association of Manufacturers that he was determined to “break the barrier of fear” by assuring industry leaders — whose political action committees and executives had just donated millions of dollars to Mr. Bush’s campaign — that a consumer complaint would not automatically result in a product recall. The era of the “federal nanny,” as a Republican commissioner described the agency during the Clinton years, was over.…

In 2003, Mr. Stratton moved to reverse an enforcement action started two years earlier against the Daisy Manufacturing Company that sought to force it to remove 7.2 million air-powered BB guns from the market.

The guns were flawed, the agency staff had argued, because a BB could become lodged within the barrel even when the chamber appeared to be empty, a condition that agency research showed had caused at least 15 deaths and 171 serious injuries, most of them involving children.

Citing Daisy’s “precarious financial condition,” Mr. Stratton rejected the recall plan — and the court proceeding that is necessary any time the commission wants to force a company to accept a recall — saying, “I consider this administrative legal proceeding to be burdensome and inefficient.”

In an unusual step, he personally negotiated an agreement with the company to put a bigger warning label on its guns and spend $1.5 million on a safety education campaign. William B. Moran, the administrative law judge hearing the case, condemned Mr. Stratton’s alternative as toothless and said the deal would “create the risk that the public could perceive its decision as driven by its political makeup.” But the commission approved the settlement in a two-to-one vote in November 2003.

Several months later, Mr. Stratton appointed Mr. Mullan the agency’s general counsel. He came from Kirkland & Ellis, a Chicago law firm with a large office in Washington. Under Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel who investigated President Clinton, the firm’s Washington office became a magnet for members of the conservative Federalist Society and a hiring pool for the Bush administration.

Among the firm’s lobbying clients was the National Association of Manufacturers. Mr. Mullan had represented General Motors, which he helped defend against claims that fuel tanks on its pickup trucks were flawed and led to side-impact explosions. He also helped represent Polaris, a maker of A.T.V.’s, against consumer commission accusations that it failed to report safety defects in two of its vehicles that had resulted in hundreds of complaints and at least 25 injuries.

Roy Deppa, an engineer who retired last year, said it was a little odd at first to work with Mr. Mullan as a colleague.

“It is like having someone you fought against what you are trying to do then come to your side,” he said.

Not long after Mr. Mullan arrived, he became the agency’s director of compliance. It is one of the safety commission’s highest-profile posts, with oversight of all investigations and enforcement actions.

In that role, he argued against a ban on sales of A.T.V.’s for use by children, and a staff report concurred. Adults could still buy the machines and permit children to ride them, Mr. Mullan said, and the agency did not have enough staff to enforce the mandate. Agreeing, the commission rejected a ban.

Mr. Mullan said he is permitted to participate in agency debates over A.T.V. rules or even enforcement matters related to Polaris, his former client, as long as he was not involved in that specific matter when he represented the company.

“The ethical rules are pretty clear on this,” he said in an interview. “And I think I have been far beyond reproach on these issues.”

Reporting Defects

Once in his new post, Mr. Mullan helped narrow the requirements for reporting safety defects to the commission, a move long sought by manufacturers. Companies are obligated to notify the agency within 24 hours if they learn that their products could pose a substantial threat to the public. Seeking to better balance industry interests with safeguards for consumers, the commission, with Mr. Mullan’s support, adopted new rules.

Companies would no longer be required to report a product if the risk of injury was considered obvious or predictable, or if misuse played a role. They could also weigh whether the product was no longer in wide use or had not been sold for many years.

Consumer advocates, the nation’s fire marshals and even some former agency employees had objected to the change, citing flawed baby cribs as an example of when a manufacturer improperly blamed misuse or improper assembly for several deaths. The new rules, they said, would let companies hide evidence about such defects.

“I find these proposed revisions not only unnecessary, but potentially dangerous for consumers,” wrote Catherine E. Downs, a former senior official at the agency. “Many in management positions at C.P.S.C. have lost their contact with the consuming public who they intended to serve.”

Agency officials, including Mr. Mullan, rejected those claims, saying all they were doing was clarifying the rules, not relaxing them.

Other agency officials, including Ms. Barone, the project manager for poison prevention, and Art McDonald, the director of the hazard and injury data section, found that priorities had shifted. A database of burns caused by consumer products was closed. And agency officials stopped asking for regular briefings on emerging product hazards, Mr. McDonald said. “There was just a lack of interest,” said Mr. McDonald, who retired in 2004.…"

con·cept: Safety Agency Faces Scrutiny Amid Changes - New York Times