This is a time for reflection. Looking back on the past year, it really was not a great one for the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). And, sadly, many of the agency’s problems were of its own making. While many of the initiatives that are either ongoing or started in 2016 will continue into 2017, others will be consigned to the dustbin of bad ideas. And most importantly, 2017 will bring new leadership and with it fresh ideas and perspectives to address the important and complex issues with which the agency must struggle as it works to fulfill its mission to protect consumers from unreasonable risks.
From my perspective, as a past regulator and now as a practitioner trying to help those in the regulated community who sincerely want to stay on the right side of the compliance line but who find that line often moves or disappears altogether, here are some areas where the agency fell down and one hopes could do better next year.
- A penalty policy that hardly qualifies as any kind of rational “policy” at all. The agency rewrote the regulation dealing with the factors to be considered when applying penalties back in 2009 to give more transparency to the process. Instead, the process has become anything but transparent. Agency enforcement staff has made clear that it has little interest in negotiations over penalty amounts, which is where the application of the penalty factors would come in. Current agency leadership has stated that its penalty policy is “more is better.” In trying to appear as a tough cop, the agency instead comes across as a bully. While that result may be an effective scare tactic, it serves to drive away companies who might otherwise seek out the agency when potential problems arise and does not help to advance collaborative problem solving which the agency needs to advance its mission. Much has been written about the agency’s shortcomings in this area and let’s hope that 2017 brings about needed change here.
- An “ends justifies means” mentality that allows for skirting regulatory fairness and due process. Or put another way, government always knows best. What better illustration of this attitude than the agency’s attempts to regulate small rare earth magnets (SREM’s). Even though the industry leaders proposed a collaborative effort to regulate warnings and packaging of the product back in 2011, the agency rejected that offer and instead, through recalls and regulation, acted to ban the product. The last hold-out, a tiny U.S. company in Colorado—Zen Magnets--has consistently been prevailing in court against the full force of the U.S. Government. In the meantime, Chinese imports of SREM’s are being sold without any effort by the CPSC to crack down. I guess that the CPSC thinks that only magnets sold by U.S. companies are dangerous. Certainly magnets present a hazard if swallowed. However, they can be used safely in many different art, science, educational and recreational applications. Perhaps in 2017, the agency could consider how to step back from a ban to a regulation that allows the product into the market while providing the kind of warnings and child-proof packaging that alerts parents to the hazards the product presents if swallowed by small children.
- Will the agency consider applying modern regulatory concepts to rule writing to assure they are effective? In a recent statement, Commissioner Mohorovic is critical of the agency’s purported effort review its standard dealing with mattress flammability. This review is required by the Regulatory Flexibility Act which mandates review of significant rules every 10 years and the mattress rule falls into that definition. Even though the staff found that the rule was not as effective in protecting the public as the agency had predicted when it was issued 10 years ago, it did not recommend changes. This is just one example of the agency’s reluctance to go back to see if what it is doing is really working to protect consumers. Commissioner Mohorovic’s suggestion that a retrospective review plan be built into rules as they are being developed is a good one and would help assure that the rules the agency writes actually provide the protection the agency says they will. To date, agency leadership has only given lip-service to the suggestion but has done nothing real to effectuate such a plan. Perhaps in 2017, this will change.
- Will 2017 bring some closure to the never-ending dithering on upholstered furniture flammability regulation? For a while in 2016, it looked like Commissioner Buerkle had found a path forward for addressing upholstered furniture smoldering hazard, but that was not to be. Instead, a majority of the commissioners decided that virtually every flammability hazard needed to be regulated so are now looking at how to address the hazard of large open flame fires where upholstered furniture is not necessarily the first ignition source but could possibly be the second or even the third source of ignition. To do this, commercial grade materials, expensive barriers and flame retardants will necessarily be part of the equation. In the meantime, pending before the agency is a petition to ban flame retardants. Boy, what a mess! A consumer rebellion may be on the way!
- We started the year with flaming hover boards and ended it with flaming cell phones—both caused by lithium ion batteries. Rather than looking at the application first, would it not be better to start by looking at the batteries? The agency seems to be going about this from the wrong direction.
- A continual point of concern for agency stakeholders is a communications and press office that makes policy rather than communicates it. In the meantime, complaints are common about press releases that contain inaccuracies or are held up for trivial reasons, thereby delaying recalls. This result directly impacts consumer safety, cannot be defended, and yet is occurring. Again, room for improvement in 2017.
I could go on and on but 2017 is just around the corner. Change will not happen immediately but is inevitable. Working together and in a spirit of support for the agency, 2017 can be a great year for the CPSC. What a happy thought to take us all through the holidays and into next year!
Nancy Nord joined OFW Law after completing an eight-year term as a Commissioner on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, serving from 2005 through 2013. Ms. Nord was Acting Chairman of the CPSC from July 2006 until June 2009.