Consumer safety panel hamstrung by vacancy

WASHINGTON — When the Consumer Product Safety Commission returns to work Monday, it will not have the authority to adopt safety rules, order mandatory recalls of dangerous products or impose civil penalties on companies that do not report product hazards immediately.

The agency, which polices more than 15,000 types of products, will lose those powers today when its temporary quorum expires for the second time in little more than a year.

Normally, the CPSC needs all three members for a quorum, but it has had a vacancy since Chairman Harold Stratton left in July 2006, leaving Nancy Nord, who has been acting chairman, and Thomas Hill Moore on the commission. The agency was able to operate with two members for six months. The temporary quorum lapsed in January 2007, and Congress granted an extension in August.

Congress has not passed another one, and the Bush administration has not nominated a new chairman who could restore quorum since its last pick, industry lobbyist Michael Baroody, withdrew his name in May after protest by Senate Democrats and consumer groups.

Congress is considering extending the quorum as part of legislation to improve the nation’s product-safety system. That legislation is tied up in the Senate.

Consumer advocates and industry lobbyists said the end of quorum underscores the need for product-safety reform.

“With globalization of the safety supply chain and newer, more complicated products, we need a stronger CPSC more than ever,” said Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America.

The end of the quorum won’t affect the CPSC’s ability to oversee voluntary recalls or ongoing research and investigations. And the agency’s staff will be able to impose civil penalties in some open cases, spokeswoman Julie Vallese said.

“This agency will not come to a halt in enforcing its authority in protecting consumers,” she said.

But the loss of quorum leaves work undone. It delays the process of adopting safety standards. It strips the agency of the power to pressure manufacturers to establish standards faster, consumer advocates said. It also hinders its ability to hold companies accountable for violating consumer protection laws.

For example, there has not been a mandatory recall of the Meerkat 50, an all-terrain vehicle for children that has no front brakes, even though the CPSC issued an unusual public warning in June calling the Meerkat “defective and dangerous,” and accusing its maker, Kazuma Pacific, of having “impeded CPSC’s efforts to protect the safety of children.”

When asked about the Meerkat case, Vallese declined to comment, citing an open investigation.

Consumer advocates criticized the commission for not issuing more civil penalties, especially against companies that sold lead-tainted toys.

“If we are going to hold corporate lawbreakers accountable, we have to impose civil penalties as well as the market penalties they face,” said Edmund Mierzwinski, US PIRG’s director of consumer programs.

Vallese said the agency’s priority is getting dangerous products out of stores. “‘People first’ is what we work for. Get the product off the shelf and then we’ll look into whether there was some kind of corporate violation for the statutes,” she said.

Fines on companies that sold toys with lead are being considered, she said. “You can expect there will be some civil penalties levied for lead violations.”

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