- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The pending House and Senate bills that would revamp product safety requirements are disparate in their intent and scope. The House version, passed Dec. 19 at the height of the Christmas season as toy-safety hysteria blasted throughout the mainstream media, is more moderate and thus preferable to the Senate proposal. This week or next, the Senate will likely consider a bill that would slap stringent requirements on manufacturers and muddle the jurisdictional boundaries of federal and state authorities on the issue of product safety.

The House bill, which passed 407-0, would grant increased authority and funding for the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). It was heralded by the head of that agency. But the Senate measure has drawn fire from both the CPSC and industry leaders, who realize its reach is far too expansive and could lead to public libeling of companies manufacturing goods here and abroad.

Sen. Mark Pryor, Arkansas Democrat, has been pushing for the bill, reported out of the Senate Commerce Committee in December. He has been full-throated in his call for cumbersome government meddling which goes well beyond what is needed to keep American consumers safe. Among the unpalatable provisions in Mr. Pryor’s bill is one that would allow state attorneys general to intervene in product safety cases that go well beyond what is written in statute, thus encroaching on the CPSC’s authority and creating excess bureaucracy and governmental overlap.

“We appreciate the idea of having more cops on the beat,” said Stephanie Lester, vice president for international trade at the Retail Industry Leaders Association. However, Miss Lester points out, the law could result in attorneys general interjecting themselves into these cases for political or other reasons that go beyond the intent of policy-makers.

The Senate bill would also require manufacturers to place excessive product warning labels on toys, a nanny-state move that could result in wavering consumer confidence and harm some toymakers. The bill would require that labels be plastered in every sort of advertising medium, regardless of whether the actual toy already has the labeling on the actual product. The Senate bill would create a publicly disclosed database that would allow consumers to openly complain about alleged product safety shortfalls, regardless of whether these complaints are true. This misguided proposal could damage the reputations and commercial viability of manufacturers and retailers who are smeared in this public setting before a full investigation can take place.

The bill also includes broad incentives and protections for whistleblowers who report defects in product development. While in theory the idea of shielding whistleblowers from repercussions could yield positive protections for consumers, unfortunately the Senate plan could actually do harm by offering bounties of up to $250,000 to workers who want to capitalize on their employers’ mishaps.

Rather than these workers doing the job they were hired to do — catching problems and reporting them immediately — the bill could in practice create some perverse incentives: allowing these workers to let problems balloon to egregious proportions and then cash out after reporting them to government bureaucrats. The culture of distrust and fingerpointing the bill would create could prove demoralizing to manufacturers and workers who are genuinely interested in ensuring product safety.

Thus far, the House has duly responded to public safety concerns with a measured, practical piece of legislation. We hope the Senate will follow suit.


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