Saving a safety agency

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), one of many independent federal agencies, is relatively modest when it comes to the size of its staff and budget. But that has not prevented the commission from making waves in its brief eight-year history --American business community. Many industry groups, and now the Reagan administration, would like the watchdog agency disbanded for what they perceive as its regulatory zeal and "anti-business" bias.

Abruptly ending the CPSC would be unwise. The commission has decidedly proven its value to the public by prodding industry either to pull from the marketplace and/or make safety-related changes in a number of consumer products -- from toys to hair dryers to Tris-treated children's clothing. That is not to deny that the agency has made mistakes. For example, it first demanded that manufacturers treat children's garments with Tris, a chemical flame-retardant, and then later it reversed itself.

However, to eliminate the agency would be, in the words of Sen. Wendell Ford, "to turn back the clock to an era when the government failed to accept any responsibility whatsoever to protect its citizens from even the most serious product hazards." The Senate Commerce Committee, of which Mr. Ford is a member, voted by a razor-thin one-vote margin this week to keep the agency going (on a leaner budget) for two more years.

A House committee, as of this writing, is considering the commission's future role. A House subcommittee had earlier supported a three-year extension.

The two-year extension favored by the Senate Commerce Committee is a reasonable compromise. During that time Congress could consider the possibility of merging the CPSC with other consumer agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, which is also marked for extinction. Surely Congress can find a way to make the agency more responsible in its regulatory task without administering a fatal blow. Lawmakers, for example, are exploring the possibility of making commission safety standards voluntary, rather than mandatory. Would voluntary standards, however, made with industry cooperation, take away the effectiveness of the agency?

The important point is that the US business community (quite properly) has billions of dollars at its disposal to create and design new products. But what counterweight do consumers have to ensure that those products are safe, with the exception of a few agencies like the Consumer Product Safety Commission? This agency, it might be noted, was enacted into law under a Republican president .

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