WASHINGTON – The head of the federal agency that oversees product safety says she's doing all she can to stop dangerous, lead-filled toys from winding up in the hands of U.S. children, but with several new recalls just Wednesday, several lawmakers say they aren't convinced that's enough.
Some House Democrats have called on Consumer Product Safety Commission Acting Chairwoman Nancy Nord to step down, a demand that Sen. Dick Durbin suggested Wednesday is not the best solution.
The only thing worse than Nancy Nord staying is her leaving, said Durbin, D-Ill., noting that the CPSC would be moving from a failed agency to a closed agency.
Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said the three-person panel can't afford to lose a second commissioner after losing one commissioner in July 2006. On top of that, he noted that CPSC staff has dropped from 786 full-time employees 30 years ago to 420 now, despite being responsible for overseeing the safety of more than 15,000 consumer goods. He said the agency is barely operational with only "antiquated" testing facilities and just one full-time toy inspector.
But the Senate majority whip said he still isn't convinced the agency is handling the recent product recalls appropriately, and likened Nord's performance to the one by former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency Michael Brown.
"I'm struck by the similarities to another bureaucratic failure — the planning and response to Hurricane Katrina. More than 20 million toys recalled, the lowest staff levels in over a decade and one person responsible for testing the safety of toys — and changes are unnecessary? That's a heckuva statement, Nancy,'" Durbin said.
Durbin was referring to two letters sent by Nord urging lawmakers not to approve Democratic-sponsored legislation that passed out of the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday.
The CPSC Reform Act of 2007 would increase the agency’s budget from $62 million to $141 million by 2015, raise the cap on penalties to $100 million from $1.8 million, ban lead in children’s products, increase staff by at least 500 by 2013, ban all sale of recalled products and advance a host of public-private regulatory enhancements.
“It is very clear to me, as well as millions of moms and dads around the country, that the CPSC is failing to keep dangerous toys and products out of the marketplace,” legislation sponsor Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said in a statement following Tuesday's vote. “My legislation infuses the agency with the resources and authority it needs to keep dangerous toys and products out of our homes.”
The Bush administration has taken issue with several provisions in the bill, including measures that would make it easier for consumers to sue companies and get more compensation for faulty products, would protect whistleblowers from companies that are willfully flouting standards and would hand over some inspection and litigation responsibilities to individual states.
According to Nord's Senate testimony in September, the commission is advancing a number of initiatives to get ahold of an “unprecedented surge of products,” estimated at $614 billion in 2006, $246 billion of which were manufactured in China. About two-thirds of the all U.S. product recalls are from imports and the “large majority" are from China, she testified.
In testimony before Congress, Nord said she is proud of the commission’s record in inspecting and recalling a record number of products — 466 in fiscal year 2006, up 25 percent since 1996. Overall death and injury related to the products under the purview of the CPSC have declined by almost one-third since the agency’s inception in 1977.
But in a statement issued Wednesday, Nord said her opposition to the legislation, outlined in her letter to the Senate Commerce Committee, in no way means she does not support additional resources for her agency.
"The main message of the letter is that if CPSC resources are diverted to new missions and mandates, we will need a dramatic upsurge in our personnel and funding, far beyond what either the House or Senate are proposing for our pending budget," she said.
"In July I submitted to Congress a legislative package seeking no fewer than 40 new statutory enforcement tools and other changes to enhance our ability to protect the public from unsafe products. To date, the committee has only seen fit to adopt a few of those proposals," Nord continued.
Meanwhile, the CPSC announced an agreement in September with its Chinese counterparts aimed at stopping the use of lead paint in toys and other product safety issues. Private companies in the U.S have also initiated their own voluntary standards and are willing to take on new mandatory inspections, too, according to reports.
Nord said that more pressure should be placed on China, which is responsible for exporting the majority of the dangerous toys
"We have to take the problem to the source, and that is China,” Nord told FOX Business Channel, adding that she supports an independent, third-party inspection process on imports. “That will go a long way towards helping the problem and that is one of the authorities that I’ve asked Congress for.” She pointed to the agreements the CPSC made with China in September. “Now it us up to us and the Chinese government to make sure those agreements are complied with.”
The White House on Wednesday offered its support to the embattled acting chairwoman.
"We believe she's doing a fine job, and we know she is committed to making sure that products coming into this country are safe for people," White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said.
A spokesman from the Toy Industry Association declined comment for this article. Though it has expressed some of the same concerns about over-regulation in the Democrats’ reform proposal, the industry in general has welcomed more stringent controls on imports.
The Consumers Union and other consumer-related groups are fully behind the new measures passed on Tuesday.
“For years the CPSC has been operating much like a toothless tiger, with no bite,” said Donald Mays of the Consumers Union.
Late Wednesday consumer advocacy group Public Citizen repeated calls by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Reps. Bobby Rush and Rosa DeLauro demanding Nord resign.
"In a year that has seen an unprecedented number of recalls of unsafe products, the head of the agency designed to protect consumers is calling on lawmakers to reject legislation that would double its budget, beef up its authority and expand its staff," Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook said in a written statement.
"It is now apparent that the agency’s modus operandi is to avoid strengthening the commission if it means that it will interfere with serving corporate interest groups. Acting Chair Nancy Nord was a corporate lawyer and an official at the United States Chamber of Commerce before joining the CPSC," she continued.
Meanwhile, Perino said the White House plans to act on a report released in September by the Import Safety Working Group, headed by Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt. “We realize we need to do more,” in the realm of import safety, she acknowledged.
But Perino scolded Democrats for not giving a hearing to the president’s nominee for a permanent head of the CPSC, Michael Baroody.
“We would hope that they would stop playing politics with this issue and allow us to get some additional leadership in there, as the president has requested,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.