WASHINGTON – The Senate's leading Democrat criticized President Bush's choice to lead the government's product safety agency Tuesday, contending that Mary Sheila Gall would make the agency meaningless.
Gall is to testify Wednesday before the Senate Commerce Committee, which is considering her nomination to become chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Gall, one of the agency's three commissioners and the only Republican, has been denounced by consumer groups for voting against new regulations for a variety of products considered potentially dangerous, including baby walkers and children's bunk beds.
"I don't believe she is qualified," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said. "I think it would make virtually meaningless the role of the (agency)."
Bush remains committed to Gall's nomination, White House spokeswoman Anne Womack said, noting that Gall has been appointed to the commission twice: in 1991 by Bush's father and in 1999 by Clinton.
Daschle's comments came as consumer groups stepped up their opposition to Gall's nomination.
"Gall is simply the wrong choice," said James Guest, president of Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports. "We believe that the well-being of children and other consumers could be seriously compromised."
While Gall won't make public comments until the hearing, in a 1999 letter critical of some of the agency's actions, she said: "I have consistently advocated personal responsibility, criticizing attempts to declare a particular product defective when the only hazard has been the bizarre use of the product by the consumer."
The consumer groups said Gall blames consumers for being irresponsible instead of pushing companies to make products safer. As an example, they point to the dozens of infants who have drowned in incidents linked to baby bath seats since Gall helped defeat a proposed ban on the product in 1994.
Gall said at the time there wasn't enough evidence to support a ban and that the deaths were cases of extreme neglect by adults who left the seated babies alone in water.
This year, however, Gall voted with the other commissioners to pursue more limited regulations to make the seats more stable.
Fellow safety commissioner Thomas Moore, a Democrat, has publicly supported Gall's nomination, pointing out that Gall has voted with the Democratic commissioners more often than not.
Chicago-based Underwriters Laboratories, which provides safety certifications, and many industry groups and manufacturers also back Gall, who has often favored voluntary industry standards over government regulations.
Congress created the safety commission in 1972 to "protect the public against unreasonable risks of injuries and deaths associated with consumer products."
The agency oversees about 15,000 types of products, ranging from infant high chairs to fire sprinklers. While it works with companies to recall dangerous products and develop voluntary safety standards, the commission also issues and enforces mandatory rules and product bans.
Ann Brown, the current chairwoman appointed by President Clinton, plans to leave the agency to start a new consumer group if Gall is confirmed, commission spokeswoman Marthena Cowart said.
Since becoming chairwoman in 1994, Brown has aggressively pushed for product recalls and safety regulations. A former consumer activist, she has made frequent television appearances to publicize recalls and criticize companies who make unsafe products.
Gall has said Brown and the agency sometimes go too far, issuing warnings about products and behaviors that are beyond the agency's authority or should be covered by common sense.
In her 1999 letter, Gall said she had become frustrated with "the procession of proclamations issued by this agency on behalf of the federal Nanny State."