Product safety chief tries to curb agency

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The nation's top official for consumer product safety has asked Congress in recent days to reject legislation intended to strengthen the agency that polices thousands of consumer goods, from toys to tools.

On the eve of an important Senate committee meeting to consider the legislation, Nancy A. Nord, the acting chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, has asked lawmakers in two letters not to approve the bulk of legislation that would increase the agency's authority, double its budget and sharply increase its dwindling staff.


Nord opposes provisions that would increase the maximum penalties for safety violations and make it easier for the government to make public reports of faulty products, protect industry whistle-blowers and prosecute executives of companies that willfully violate laws.

The measure is an effort to buttress an agency that has been under siege because of a raft of tainted and dangerous products manufactured both domestically and abroad. In the past two months alone, more than 13 million toys have been recalled after tests indicated lead levels that sometimes reached almost 200 times the safety limit.


Nord's opposition to important elements of the legislation is consistent with the broadly deregulatory approach of the Bush administration during the past seven years. In a variety of areas, from antitrust to trucking and worker safety, officials appointed by President Bush have sought to reduce the role of regulation and government in the marketplace.

Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman, said Nord had not coordinated her effort to kill the legislation with the White House. But he said that the administration shared many of her concerns and that Allan Hubbard, President Bush's top economic adviser at the White House, was preparing to send a letter to Congress "that is probably even more forceful than Nord's."

The Senate Commerce Committee is set to vote today on the legislation, which is sponsored by Sens. Daniel K. Inouye, the Hawaiian Democrat, who heads the committee, and Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor, who heads the consumer affairs subcommittee.

It would more than double the agency's budget, to $141 million, over the next seven years, raise staffing levels by about 20 percent and give the commission broad new powers to police the marketplace. It would raise the cap on the maximum penalties to $100 million, from $1.8 million.

Nord criticized the measure in letters sent late last week and yesterday afternoon to the Democratic leaders of the committee. She was critical, for instance, of a provision to ban lead from all toys, saying it was not practical. She said that the proposal to raise the potential penalty to $100 million "may have the undesired consequence of firms, as a precautionary measure, flooding the agency with virtually every consumer complaint and incident." Her concern, she said, was that the increase in complaints would so overwhelm the commission that, "true safety issues would go unrecognized in the process."

She also criticized a provision that would give state prosecutors the authority to enforce the federal consumer safety laws.

Manufacturers had agreed to another provision that would assign independent laboratories to test and certify the safety of products, rather than the agency. But Nord said she objected to the provision. She preferred that the agency determine the conditions for using independent laboratories.

While Nord said she supported the committee's efforts in general, she issued a more modest proposal than the one under consideration in the Senate. It would, among other things, increase the maximum amount of civil penalties to $10 million, create incentives for companies to halt sales of recalled products quickly, and give the government the authority to seize assets of a company found to have violated criminal safety laws.


Pryor said Nord's objections surprised him.

"It's hard for me to know if it's just ideological or she is just expressing the wishes of the administration," Pryor said. "Either way it comes to the same conclusion, and that is that they say they want more resources, but they are very reluctant to accept those resources."

The agency has suffered from a steady decline in its budget and staffing in recent years. Its staff numbers about 420, about half its size in the 1980s. It has only one full-time employee to test toys. And 15 inspectors are assigned to police all imports of consumer products under the agency's supervision, a marketplace that last year was valued at $614 billion.