Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Bill will save kids like Jack

For a day, Sen. Mark Pryor has made believers of us all. Pryor is the consummate come-let-us-reason-together politician, which the cynics among us have delighted in reviling, but last Thursday, Pryor passed far-reaching regulatory legislation to protect consumers from dangerous products. He did it by marshaling overwhelming bipartisan support like no one has seen on Capitol Hill in at least a generation.

The tough consumer bill -— which should be named after the Jacksonville toddler who nearly died after playing with a hazardous toy — passed 79 to 13 and will end lead-laced toys and give a rearmed consumer-safety agency and state attorneys general hefty new enforcement power. The White House and manufacturers don’t like much of the bill, especially the part that shields industry whistle-blowers from reprisal, but President Bush is not likely to veto the bill that will emerge from a conference with the House of Representatives.

Mattel five months ago recalled more than 20 million products that were coated with lead or contained dangerous magnets. A month later, several children in Australia fell into comas after consuming parts of a toy that contained a chemical that metabolized into a substance used as a date-rape drug. The toy was marketed in the United States and had sickened several children, including Jack Esses of Jacksonville.

The senator had brought with him to Washington the mother of one the victims of a dangerous toy who had nearly died from acute poisoning. Shelby Esses, the wife of an airman at Little Rock Air Force Base, received international publicity last fall, when her son Jack passed out after swallowing AquaDots, a Chinese toy that contained the date-rape drug gamma-hydroxybutyric acid.

Fortunately, Jack survived the ordeal, but Pryor wants to make sure other children will not die while playing with dangerous toys because of lax federal supervision.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission had become a toothless watchdog with fewer than half the employees it had in 1980 and meager laboratory facilities and technical capacity. Pryor’s bill would raise the budget from $63 million to $106 million, upgrade its testing facilities and sharply raise the maximum fines that can be levied on companies that do not report product dangers immediately.

Lead will be banned from all children’s products, not just toys, and new toys will have to be tested by independent laboratories. We thought the government would never act although consumer and environmental groups have been finding lead in hundreds of children’s products and the deaths and illnesses piled up.

The Bush administration’s eternal hostility to the government’s acting as a watchdog over business and the need to get a supermajority for controversial legislation in the Senate made tough consumer legislation unlikely. But Pryor’s dogged but gentle persistence and his dexterous management of amendments and Senate procedure brought more than half the Senate’s
Republicans on board, which is quite an accomplishment.

Sometimes it’s easy to dismiss Pryor as a lightweight who shuns controversy, but he has reached out to Republicans before — including his joining the Gang of 14 in a compromise on federal judgeships that ended gridlock in the Senate — and it is in that spirit of bipartisanship that Pryor shepherded through his product-safety bill.

His success in Washington helps explain why he drew no Republican opposition this year as he runs for a second term, although he’ll face a Green Party candidate in November.

When he was Arkansas attorney general, we were not overly impressed with Pryor’s ardor for consumers. He gave a leg up to the payday lenders, whose unconstitutional deprivations are just now being curtailed by the courts. He made up for it last week. Maybe there is something to the post-partisanship mantra that we hear from Sen. Barack Obama, the leading Democratic candidate for president.