Leader Blues

Thursday, November 01, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Agency watch

The Bush administration makes you wonder sometimes who the government is looking out for, the victim or the perpetrator. Nancy A. Nord, the chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, sent Congress what can only be described as shocking letters last week. She opposed reform legislation by Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii that seeks to strengthen the moribund agencyís ability to protect Americans from unsafe products from abroad and home.

The White House, which put Ms. Nord in charge of consumer safety, intends to send an even more forceful letter to Congress about the bill. The public already enjoys too much protection from the bullied manufacturers from China, India and elsewhere, the White House seems to think.

A mere shadow of what it was a quarter-century ago, the agency canít keep up with all the products, from toys to tools, that flood the market. Its budget has been shrinking sharply for years and it has few employees left to conduct safety tests on products ó about half the number it had in the 1980s. The product market since then has exploded to $614 billion a year. Even with the commissionís weak staff, in the past two months alone more than 13 million toys were recalled after tests showed lead levels nearly 200 times the safety limit, a good measure of the problem. Pryorís bill would ban lead from toys, which Nord opposed.

Pryor, chairman of the consumer affairs subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, wants to restore the agencyís watchdog authority by doubling its tiny budget to $141 million, expanding its inspection capacity, toughening the penalties for violating safety standards and strengthening protections for whistleblowers in industry.

None of that is needed, Nord said, and she strongly objected to the legislation. Some business groups and manufacturers have opposed some of the reforms, but the agency director went well beyond their objections. Pryor was mystified. The agency wanted more money, he observed, but no more authority to do anything with it.

But who, really, should be surprised. President Bush and Vice President Cheney populated all these regulatory agencies in the Commerce and Interior departments with people from the industries that they regulated, often lobbyists for offending industries. In Nordís case, she was an official at the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposes significant government regulation of manufacturers, and a lawyer for Eastman Kodak.

When you put the fox in charge of the hen house, donít expect. . . Well, you know how it goes.