More Paper Tiger Than Watchdog?

The consumer product safety agency is overwhelmed and underfunded

From potentially dangerous toys to lead-laced baby bibs, recent recalls have raised worries about goods imported from lightly regulated Chinese factories. The episode has also focused attention on the tiny federal agency that ought to be preventing such mishaps. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is charged with protecting buyers from injury and death from some 15,000 kinds of products. Yet while the CPSC has never been more vital, through much of its 33-year history the agency has been chronically understaffed and underfunded. Overseeing 400 recalls a year, most at companies' requests, the CPSC's compliance team has less time to initiate its own investigations, which tend to reveal the most serious risks.

Guaranteeing the safety of a rising flow of imported goods is so difficult, some insiders regard the CPSC as more of a paper tiger than a public protector. Here's what ails the agency and what might be done about it.

How powerful is the CPSC?

Not nearly as strong as it could be. You would think an agency with such an important role would be a high priority for Washington. Yet its budget is just $62 million, one-seventh the size of the Food & Drug Administration's funding for food safety alone. The CPSC also operates under rules that prohibit staff from publicizing information about product complaints until the manufacturer O.K.'s the release. Besides handing over a lot of control to companies, this process routinely delays public disclosure of hazards, say critics.

Has the agency lost power under the Bush Administration?

By most accounts, yes. Not that previous Administrations poured money into the CPSC, but its funding has increased by just 2.8%, in real terms, under Bush. The agency, which is normally overseen by three commissioners, has operated with just two (one Democrat, one Republican) and no permanent chairman since last summer. Congress has granted special, temporary permission to let the two commissioners operate as a quorum. Nor has it helped that the White House put forward a former lobbyist for the manufacturing industry, the very group CPSC is meant to oversee, as a nominee to chair the AGENCY earlier this year. Michael Baroody eventually withdrew his nomination. But not before angering already put-upon staff.

So what's it like working at the CPSC?

Growing workload and shrinking resources have left many disheartened. From a peak of nearly 1,000 in 1980, CPSC's head count has fallen to 400. Many highly experienced staff have taken buyouts recently. With goods entering the U.S. through 326 seaports, airports, and land crossings, the task of monitoring the flow can seem all but insurmountable. "Morale is a problem," says Peter Winch, an organizer for the American Federation of Government Employees. Despite cutbacks, says Acting CPSC Chairman Nancy A. Nord, "[the staff] is committed to the mission of the agency."

What can be done to help the agency?

In a word, money. It's been 17 years since Congress thoroughly reviewed the CPSC's resources and needs, says Nord. That is, until the recent scares. Senator Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) has proposed a bill to hike funding to $100 million by fiscal 2012. It would also slash the time companies have to respond to CPSC charges, and boost civil penalties and fines for retailers convicted of selling recalled goods. If the recall headlines continue and public outrage rises, pressure on Congress could mean the bill has a real shot.

By Tom Lowry and Lorraine Woellert

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