Wednesday, June 24, 2009

It’s a safe bet that no member of Congress has ever given a speech proudly endorsing a bill to close mom-and-pop businesses, hurt low-income shoppers, cause libraries to discard children’s books and ban products ranging from dirt bikes to ballpoint pens.

Last year, Congress overwhelmingly passed a law that did all these things - forcing small businesses to close and punishing manufacturers, retailers and consumers. Yet the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) became law with few warnings - and no congressional floor speeches - about the serious economic harm it would cause.

To be sure, the CPSIA came in response to the public’s legitimate concern about dangerous toys and products, especially those contaminated by lead paint. Reports in 2007 produced a media storm and political pressure. Manufacturers and retailers alike welcomed increased funding and staffing for the CPSC. But Congress went further.

The law mandates expensive, destructive products testing. All products intended for children 12 and younger must meet new lower-lead-content standards. All children’s products also must include a permanent tracking label.

The first to discover the crushing impact of the law were makers of hand-crafted toys and baby clothes. These small companies and home-based businesses often emphasize their use of natural dyes and other organic components. Demand soared in the wake of reports of dangerous toys imported from China. Then the CPSIA delivered its blow.

At a Capitol Hill rally in April, a representative of the Handmade Toy Alliance detailed the impact. Jill Chuckas of Stamford, Conn, related how the children’s clutch ball her Crafty Baby company sells for $16.50 would cost $1,500 to test - a test that destroys the product.

These same “safety” standards and testing requirements apply to used children’s clothing, toys and pre-1985 books (potentially printed with lead-containing ink) sold or distributed secondhand. Unable to bear the testing costs and unwilling to risk the legal liability, many thrift stores are simply emptying their shelves. Libraries and used-book stores have packed away children’s books.

The April rally also brought home the impact on motorcycles, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and bicycles. Certain metal parts - AZ battery terminals, for example - are made of alloys that contain minute levels of lead. No realistic possibility exists that children will consume the parts, but the CPSIA still bans them.

The Motorcycle Industry Council estimates the law could cost manufacturers and retailers as much as $1 billion annually in lost inventory and sales. There’s an individual impact, too. At the rally, champion Motocross rider Rod Yentzer said his family rides 52 weeks a year, but parts are getting hard to come by, threatening the family pastime. He then turned the podium over to his 6-year-old son, Chase. “Please let me have my dirt bike back, and I promise I won’t eat my dirt bike,” Chase said.

Earlier this month, the law hit yet another target: ballpoint pens. The pens are made with metal points that contain minute amounts of lead. They could never legitimately be considered a health risk, but the CPSC made it clear: Pens targeted for sale to children are banned.

Bound by the law’s unambiguous requirements, the CPSC has rejected industry requests for exemptions. Instead, the commission has granted stays of enforcement - in effect, offering to look the other way for a year or two.

“The CPSC is buying you some time in which to go out of business and/or retool your production to meet their standards,” commented Sarah Natividad, owner of Curious Workmanship, who produces handmade baby booties in Tooele, Utah. “They don’t have the authority to rescind the Catch-22 in the standards, so they’re doing the best they can.”

Ms. Natividad is one of scores of owners of small, home-based businesses who have turned to online social networking to push Congress to reform the CPSIA. Unfortunately, no legislation is moving; some members have deflected the growing grass-roots criticism by blaming the CPSC’s current leadership.

Last week, the Senate unanimously confirmed President Obama’s nominee to chair the CPSC, Inez Moore Tenenbaum. Ms. Tenenbaum is well-qualified - a lawyer, former South Carolina superintendent of education and a 2004 Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate. Business and consumer groups urged her quick confirmation.

Still, Ms. Tenenbaum is being put in a difficult position, asked to enforce a flawed law that is destroying businesses and depriving consumers of safe and useful products. Her tasks ahead include not just regulation and enforcement, but persuasion. She must convince Congress of what is already painfully clear to businesses large and small: It’s time to fix the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.

Carter Wood is a communications adviser for the National Association of Manufacturers.

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