The biggest news coming out of the Consumer Product Safety Commission lately is Acting Chairwoman Ann Marie Buerkle’s decision to step down from her post when her term ends in October.
Members of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on Manufacturing, Trade, and Consumer Protection seized on that announcement to grill Buerkle and her fellow commissioners about alleged lax CPSC regulation during a recent oversight hearing. If that pressure increases, as we expect it to, companies may see the CPSC bare its teeth more often in the future.
Some of the hearing’s most pointed remarks came from Ranking Member Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who said he was “deeply concerned about inaction and mishandling of complaints [he’s] seen on a number of safety issues.” He took issue with what “may be a habit of [the agency] sitting on evidence of dangerous and deadly products and taking action only after there is widespread media coverage and ensuing public outrage.”
Blumenthal also expressed frustration in the agency’s recent communication about safety issues and recalls. “What would normally be called a recall, which is a term the public well understands, are now being replaced with euphemisms like ‘information campaign.’ That term is confusing to the public who don’t understand all of the meaning of those terms of art,” Blumenthal said. That feeling was echoed by several other senators on the subcommittee.
But the red flags didn’t stop there. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., also expressed his concern that “instead of levying civil penalties against bad actors, CPSC has been turning a blind eye to their wrongdoing.” Blumenthal then noted that the agency issued only three civil penalty settlements in 2018, down from six each in 2016 and 2017.
Senators said they suspected that the agency uses CPSA Section 6b, which establishes procedures for and restrictions on the commission’s public disclosure of information, as an excuse for delaying recalls or other sanctions.
Other senators asked about specific safety issues and recalls, including those of recent children’s products recalls; fireworks safety concerns; loopholes in regulations for window coverings; and the recent unauthorized disclosure of data from the agency’s national injury information clearinghouse. The lawmakers also wanted to know about how the CPSC reaches out to the resale market during recalls, and how the agency can better communicate with consumers who may not have broadband connectivity.
While no direct regulatory or legislative consensus came immediately out of the hearing, what was potentially telling about the future direction of the agency was the dissension among the commissioners over matters such as the success or failure of recent CPSC recalls. There is a desire among a majority of the five commissioners to be more forceful and transparent in terms of standards, recall communication, speed and scoping. Their opinions may win out in the future given the concerns from Congress expressed at the hearing and in other forums.
Senators have until about July 4th to submit additional questions for record, and the Commission is expected to respond to those questions as soon as possible upon receipt. So there’s a chance we haven’t heard the last of the Senators’ criticisms of the agency.
If you want to listen in to the full dialogue between the Subcommittee and Commissioners, you can watch the archived webcast here.
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