US muzzles its role as consumer watchdog

The Consumer Product Safety Commission -- one of the smallest but most controversial agencies in federal government -- apparently has escaped the White House guillotine. But it will become a much-reduced version of its former self, and congressional action this week portends rough times ahead for other regulatory bodies as well.

Consumer advocates are relieved that Senate and House committees in recent days did not abolish the commission, as White House Budget Director David A. Stockman had urged. "We're certainly more pleased than we expected to be," says Ann Lower of the Consumer Federation of America.

At the same time, however, Capitol Hill panels voted for budget reductions that consumer activist Jim Boyle warns will "drastically curtail the commission's safety program."

The best the commission can hope for at this point is a funding cutback of more than 30 percent and a professional staff reduced by one-fourth. Perhaps more significantly, even the agency's congressional supporters are voting to reduce its regulatory independence. Some consumer items are being removed from the commission's purview, voluntary standards will be emphasized over stiffer mandatory regulations, and the agency may yet be placed under stricter White House control.

Since its formation in 1973, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has never been without its enemies -- first among consumer groups that complained that it wasn't doing enough, then businesses that rankled under the increasingly heavy regulatory hand of government. It fought off these attacks, including pressure from some Carter officials who advocated its demise.

The agency has recalled more than 170 million items it has ruled to be unsafe. From matchbook covers to lawn mowers to children's pajamas, the commission's rulings have affected consumer products.

Budget Director Stockman argues that the CPSC has "adventured too far into some areas of regulation," but that in any case the agency's goals have "largely been accomplished." If it is to remain in any form, he says, it should be moved into the executive branch where it "would be subject to greater supervision."

CPSC defenders say it must remain a relatively muscular and independent agency if it is to advance the cause of consumer safety free from undue political pressure. Commission rulings save more than 2,000 lives and prevent more than a quarter of a million injuries each year, according to the Consumer Federation of America. To those who argue the costs to business and individuals of government regulations should be given greater consideration, the National Consumers League repies that millions of dollars already are saved each year because of federal consumer product standards.

Nevertheless, the mood in Washington is for leaner government bodies, including the CPSC.

The Senate Commerce Committee has voted to keep the agency intact for two more years, but at the much-reduced funding level sought by the White House. The Senate also wants to tighten this relatively short leash by requiring the CPSC to prove that voluntary consumer protection standards will not work before imposing mandatory regulations.

A similar House bill extends the CPSC for three years, but again with considerably fewer funds. The administration cudgel is being carried there by conservative Democratic Rep. Phil Gramm of Texas, the same man who led the successful charge for the austere Reagan budget in the House.

Mr. Gramm narrowly lost his move to put the CPSC within the Commerce Department, but observers give him a greater chance for success when the bill moves from committee to full House. At the same time, lawmakers have agreed to other restrictions on the agency.

They have removed amusement park rides from CPSC control, relaxed lawnmower safety standards (as the industry had urged), and called for a separate scientific panel to advise the agency before it can issue regulations dealing with "chronic hazards" such as chemicals.

In voting for a scaled-down consumer product safety agency, Rep. Toby Moffett (D) of Connecticut bemoaned the "steamroller that we are being made part of." But he no doubt speaks for many CPSC supporters when he adds: "We are looking at this i n a politically pragmatic way of what we can get passed."

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