WASHINGTON — Legislation is moving through Congress that would overhaul the embattled Consumer Product Safety Commission and crack down on tainted imported products.
As lawmakers raced to wrap up legislative business and adjourn for the year, the House unanimously passed the major piece of product safety legislation that the Senate is likely to consider next year.
The House bill approved Wednesday would increase funding for the understaffed commission over three years from $62 million in fiscal 2007 and a pending budget of $80 million in 2008 to $80 million in 2009, $90 million in 2010 and $100 million in 2011. It would also establish lower lead content standards for children’s and preteen jewelry and toys, and increase civil penalties against companies violating the law to $10 million from $1.8 million.
The commission has come under fire on Capitol Hill after many recalls on dozens of Chinese imports because of lead content and other dangers.
Retailers and jewelry and apparel manufacturers objected to many provisions in the bill, including more restrictive lead standards, the broadening of the age limit for products covered by the standard from six to 12 years old, and a 180-day deadline for the changes to be implemented.
The industry contends that the measure would place burdens on supply chains and potentially force some companies out of business. Companies want more time to meet the standards and for exemptions to be given to thousands of products that have been designed and manufactured under the older standards.
Consumer, health and product safety watchdog groups, such as Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen, have pushed for tighter lead content standards, a quicker phase-in time, better disclosure of potentially dangerous products and protections for "whistle-blowers."
The Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation committee approved a product safety overhaul bill at the end of October. The bills would then have to be reconciled in committee and signed by the President.
"In simple terms, [the bill] is a common sense solution to the consumer safety crisis that has received much public attention this year," said Rep. John Dingell (D., Mich.), chairman of the House committee.
Retailers supported the increased funding for the commission, but said more time was needed for the new lead standards to be put in place.
"It’s a monumental lift," Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy for the National Retail Federation, said of the changes companies would have to make in six months. "Most companies are already looking to the next fall season and placing production orders now for fall, and to ask them to redesign their products now would be impossible."
The House bill forged a compromise on the 180-day deadline, amended the original bill and gave the commission the authority to extend the deadline by another six months if it met several conditions, including a guarantee that the extension would prove no danger to public health — a criteria that retailers argued would be impossible to meet.
"We recognize there is a lot of political pressure to do this sooner rather than later, but when you are talking about every children’s product for kids 12 and under, and suddenly there is an increase in the scope and tighter regulations, and you add a new requirement for labeling and mandatory testing, you have to consider that retailers can’t move on a dime," said Stephanie Lester, vice president of international trade for the Retail Industry Leaders Association. "The inventory that retailers have right now, which are assets that they want to sell, would suddenly become a huge liability."
Jewelry manufacturers also have problems with the legislation.
"One of the concerns in the House bill is the definition of children as age 12 [and under] and that is a major concern to the industry," said Michael Gale, executive director of the Fashion Jewelry Trade Association. "To define a product for stores and suppliers that says this appeals to 12-year-olds, and this does not, becomes extremely subjective. We don’t feel that the same type of protections are necessary for the tween group as are for children’s groups."
He said the new lead standards would force jewelry manufacturers to discontinue several designs that rely on lead.
Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety and senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America, said: "Lead should not have been in these products before, even though the law was silent on whether lead should be in children’s jewelry and in toys themselves. The industry doesn’t have a persuasive argument here. They have six months, which is more that enough time and they should also have been reading the writing on the wall about the dangers of lead and working to eliminate it, if they were using it, many months ago."