Product-safety chief rejects extra funds

Nancy Nord, acting chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

KAI RYSSDAL: Today seems to be the day on the program for agencies you might never have heard of. The Senate Commerce Committee approved a big budget increase for the Consumer Product Safety Commission this morning. It's been a busy year for the CPSC what with all the lead-based paint and small magnets that have been showing up in toys. That, in turn, has led to a record number of recalls for a commission that's less than half the size it was back when it was created in the 1970s. But Nancy Nord, the acting chairman of the CPSC doesn't want the money that Congress is offering. Our Washington Bureau Chief John Dimsdale has been covering the story for us. Hello John.

JOHN DIMSDALE: Hello, Kai.

RYSSDAL: So, first things first. What is in this bill that was passed today?

DIMSDALE: It's pretty comprehensive. It more than doubles the funding over seven years for the CPSC. It increases staff, increases fines for defective products. It strengthens the government's prosecution powers of company executives. There are whistle-blower protections to encourage company employees to contact regulators. It'll allow states to impose their own stronger rules. And it makes it easier for the government to warn the public about hazards.

RYSSDAL: All of which sound like something that a person running a Consumer Product Safety Commission would want. Why does Ms. Nord not want any of these things?

DIMSDALE: Well, she's following the Bush administration's philosophy of minimal regulation. She wants to keep the government out of free markets. This small agency oversees a trillion-and-a-half dollars worth of products and relies on voluntary actions by the industry. Knowing that it's in the manufacturers' interests to police their own products, the chairman worries that a bigger government hammer on industry will mean less voluntary compliance. She raised her concerns at a Senate hearing earlier this month.

NANCY NORD: That it is going to decrease the incentives for companies to come to us and work through these problems because the confidentiality isn't protected.

But, you know, her objections to extra clout for her agency totally exasperates the Democrats. Several of them today, including the Speaker Nancy Pelosi, called on her to resign, citing in part her reluctance to ask for more money for the CPSC. And at this month's hearing, Florida's Democratic Senator Bill Nelson said he knows why.

BILL NELSON: The reason the chairman of the CPSC will not answer the question is that she, as chairman, as a political appointee, is not allowed to ask for more because she is under the orders of the White House budget office only to ask for what is approved by the White House budget.

RYSSDAL: All right, John. Make a guess for me. What are the chances that the CPSC is actually going to be reformed and all this money is going to be in that budget.

DIMSDALE: Well, all the news about tainted products -- from toys to toothpaste coming in from China -- it's really given this bill a lot of momentum. You know, there was another report out today that there are dangerous levels of lead in some of the Halloween costumes that are coming in from China. It does seem that this small agency has been neglected for some time.

The reason Nancy Nord is acting chairman is the Bush administration's nominee for that slot withdrew earlier this year because of strong objections from consumer advocates that his background was not in consumer protection, but instead had been a leading lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers. So, you know, for a good part of the year the commission didn't have a quorum and, therefore, couldn't take legal action against companies that won't go along with voluntary recalls. So, it seems like this reform is needed.

RYSSDAL: Yeah, that's an interesting point, the voluntary recalls thing, which we learned in the Mattel episodes earlier this summer. Is the president, John, talking about vetoing this bill if it does get passed?

DIMSDALE: He has raised some objections. But he hasn't used the V word, the veto word

RYSSDAL: John Dimsdale at the consumer product safety desk for us in Washington, D.C. Thank you, John.

DIMSDALE: You're welcome, Kai.

About the author

As head of Marketplace’s Washington, D.C. bureau, John Dimsdale provides insightful commentary on the intersection of government and money for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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