EDITORIAL: Brass attacks

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Seventy-six trombones left the big charade. A thousand and 10 store debts are close at hand. There are zippers, keys - so many amenities - all outlawed because Congress is blind. With apologies to Meredith Willson’s 1957 Broadway show “The Music Man,” such could be the latest fallout from the draconian Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.

Congress passed the misnamed CPSIA in 2008 to protect consumers, especially children, from all manner of supposed dangers in ordinary products. The CPSIA’s most stringently targeted danger is lead, which clearly can be a health hazard. The problem is that the CPSIA leaves all reason behind, setting allowable lead limits so low, with so little room for common-sense exceptions, that it effectively bans huge numbers of harmless products used in everyday life.

A veritable smorgasbord of business groups and grass-roots activists have arisen to fight the CPSIA - among them an outfit called the Alliance for Children’s Product Safety. Its Web site, Amend the CPSIA, used the “76 Trombones” motif to complain about the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s latest ruling concerning the CPSIA, which effectively outlaws all brass used in children’s products. (One component of brass is lead.) By a 3-2 vote on Nov. 4, the commission decided that Congress had left no leeway for common-sense exceptions to the brass ban.

Result? To quote at some length from the alliance’s Web site, “In addition to brass zippers, grommets and other apparel and footwear components, victims of this decision include brass instruments, musical bells and certain strings used in a string instrument. By in effect outlawing brass in children’s products as defined by CPSIA, … the CPSC’s actions call into question the future of school bands. Will young musicians in their school band’s brass section now have to hum along with their peers, or switch to the recorder or a (plastic) kazoo?

“The fact is that brass is routinely used in countless products used and touched by children daily, including door knobs, locker handles, and much, much more. There is no danger of lead poisoning from brass. CPSC staff wrote that they consider brass bushings safe. … However, staff believed that CPSIA offers no flexibility to the CPSC to assess risk.”

Commissioners Nancy Nord (former chairman of the commission) and Anne Northup (former congressman from Kentucky) dissented from the hard-line anti-brass vote. Wrote Ms. Nord: “This does not advance consumer safety, diverts staff resources from real safety issues, and puts an unnecessary burden on manufacturers and sellers of children’s products.” Ms. Northup chimed in that “unless [Congress] act* soon, more small businesses will be forced to shut down.”

Ms. Northup is right to put the onus on Congress, which passed a truly counterproductive law. For well over a year now, Congress has been flooded with specific and reasonable complaints about multiple aspects of the CPSIA. These consequences include the destruction of children’s books published before 1985, the silencing of charitable auctions and the shuttering of thrift shops nationwide.

Yet the congressional leadership has turned a blind eye to all the evidence that its handiwork is awful. Neither congressional committee with jurisdiction over the law has held a single hearing featuring a single critic of the CPSIA.

With more than 10 percent of the American work force officially unemployed, Congress should be jumping through brass hoops to fix any laws, such as CPSIA, that hobble the economy. But when it comes to putting practicality over rigid ideology, it seems Congress’ top brass can’t be bothered.

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