WASHINGTON – The embattled head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission vigorously defended her enforcement record Tuesday amid Democratic assertions that a slow product recall policy forces parents to play "toybox roulette."
Nancy Nord, a Bush administration appointee, said she supported additional money to bolster the troubled regulatory agency, calling a proposed House bill doubling its budget "a win for consumers."
Nord also told a House Energy and Commerce panel that she did no wrong by accepting three free trips from industry worth thousands of dollars, saying it had been common agency practice with approval from CPSC attorneys.
"This practice, not common by me, is legal ... and was in place for 20 years, long before I came to the commission," she told lawmakers who questioned her independence.
"Faced with limited enforcement dollars," Nord said, "I would much rather spend $900 in a laboratory than on airfare and hotel."
Still, Nord acknowledged that reasonable people could argue about the propriety of the trips and said that in the event Congress wants to ban the practice, she would support that. "If Congress wishes to do that and give us the funds, yes of course, I will," she said.
Nord, who has said she won't resign, contended that it was important for CPSC and Congress to work together to fix problems as the busy holiday shopping season approaches.
"As acting chairman, I believed that it was important for me to be proactive and come forward to Congress with my ideas to strengthen the commission's hand in enforcing our laws and protecting the American public from unsafe products," Nord said.
Some Democratic lawmakers weren't fully convinced.
"It's one thing when we all resolve to work together on the millions of millions of products recalled in the face of danger or injury. It's another thing when the chairwoman designated to take care of those issues responds by saying it is too cumbersome to adopt the reforms suggested," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said it was clear the CPSC has not been fully doing its job during Nord's two-year tenure.
"The CPSC once stood for the Consumer Protection Safety Commission. Today it stands for 'Can't Protect the Safety of Children,"' Markey said. "The reality is CPSC has lost 15 percent of its workforce since 2004. ...As the holidays approach, parents should not have to play toybox roulette."
Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats demanded Nord's resignation after she opposed a Senate measure that would, in part, have authorized the hiring of more staff and a doubling of CPSC's budget. Nord says she opposes separate provisions in the measure that would have extended protections to whistleblowers and would have made it easier for the government to make public reports of faulty products.
Nord and her predecessor as chairman, Hal Stratton, reportedly accepted free trips worth thousands of dollars at industry expense. The purported aim: To share information with industry about "CPSC priorities" and discuss toy safety.
Nord has requested the Office of Government Ethics to review whether the trips created, as critics say, an improper appearance of conflicts of interest.
Consumer advocates have questioned whether Nord has the independence to energize a CPSC that has seen a record number of recalls involving millions of lead-tainted toys and other products this year.
"Acting Chairman Nord is totally wrongheaded in her approach. She's forgotten that it's the Consumer Product Safety Commission, not the Business Product Safety Commission," said Ann Brown, who chaired the CPSC during the Clinton administration.
On Tuesday, CPSC commissioner Thomas Moore said it was vital that Congress act quickly to provide CPSC more money. At the same time, he pleaded for patience to let the agency rebuild as Nord clings to her job.
"The downsizing and dismantling of the agency has been going on for a while, so I ask you to be patient with all of us at the agency as we rebuild our staff expertise and, with your strong support, refocus our efforts on providing a greater level of product safety," said Moore, a Democrat.