WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Monday night to take up a comprehensive product safety bill that would increase the fines on U.S. companies importing tainted and toxic products and overhaul the agency responsible for setting safety standards on U.S.-made and imported goods.
The bill, which the Senate is expected to debate this week, would increase the funding and staffing for the understaffed Consumer Product Safety Commission — an independent agency that oversees the safety of thousands of consumer goods — from its current fiscal 2008 level of $80 million to $88.5 million in 2009, and increase the budget by 10 percent a year through 2015.
The legislation would also provide an additional $40 million in 2009 and 2010 to upgrade the agency’s aging laboratories and $1 million in each of those years to research the safety of nanotechnology products. The bill would increase the civil fines cap to $20 million from the current level of $1.8 million; establish lower lead content standards in all children’s jewelry and toys; require manufacturers to label children’s products with tracking information for the purposes of identifying recalled products; provide whistle-blower protections, and establish a database for reports of injuries, illness or death related to products submitted by the public and other government agencies.
“When you see how the CPSC staff has shrunk [to 420 full-time employees this year from a peak of 900 employees 20 years ago] and you see how imports have grown, that explains why millions and millions of products were pulled from retail shelves last year,” said Sen. Mark Pryor (D., Ark.), a lead sponsor of the bill. “The CPSC has become less capable and less able to deal with the changes in the import economy, which is why you see more and more dangerous products coming into this country. We need to help this agency.”
The House passed a bill in December that does not include many of the provisions contained in the Senate bill. If the Senate passes the bill, it will have to be reconciled with the House bill in a conference committee before the president can sign it.
Retailers and jewelry and apparel manufacturers object to many provisions in the bill, which is a bipartisan compromise among Senate Republicans and Democrats. Companies are concerned about the stricter lead standards, as well as whistle-blower protections and the proposed public database that would allow the CPSC to exclude proprietary business information, but also give the agency the discretion to post information it deems “to be in the public interest.”
“We would need more time [to make the changes to meet the new lead standards], which the House bill offers, but we certainly prefer the age limit of seven [contained in the Senate bill] to that in the House bill [which would broaden the age limit from six to 12 years old on products covered by the lower lead level allowed],” said Michael Gale, executive director of the Fashion Jewelry Trade Association.