Product safety watchdog goes onto lean diet

It's the first federal watchdog agency to come up for renewal since President Reagan took office. Accordingly, the embattled Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), fighting not only for its budget but for its independence and survival, is viewed by both business and consumer lobbyists as the major test case of the Reagan administration's pledge to keep the thicket of federal regulations to an absolute minimum.

The independent regulatory agency was launched by Congress in 1972 to help ward off "unreasonable" risks of death and injury related to consumer products. For most of its existence it has concentrated on setting standards for such objects as lawn mowers, bicycles, and chain saws. Recently the CSPC has moved more into regulation of toxic chemicals where dangers posed are regarded as more long term.

Consumer advocates say that if the agency is weakened in power and scope, as they are almost sure it will be, it will make it that much easier for business opponents of other watchdog agencies such as the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the Food and Drug Administration to get what they want there as well.

Jim Boyle, director of governmental affairs for the Consumer Federation of America, an umbrella organization for a number of consumer groups, insists "the commission is kind of the Afghanistan among the agencies. The administration and special interest groups are clearly out to 'get' it."

What the Reagan administration proposes in this case is a sharp 30 percent cut in the agency's $45 million budget. Some in the Reagan camp would also like to substitute a single administrator for the present five-member governing commission and move the agency into the executive branch under a department such as Commerce or Health and Human Services. Among the many variations of these ideas now being debated on Capitol Hill is a proposal to transfer the responsibility for products posing long-term dangers to another agency such as the Environmental Protection Agency.

The business community affected by CPSC actions generally endorses the idea of such as transfer, supports the budget cut, and wants to tighten procedures for disclosing sensitive business information to the agency or the general public. The National Association of Manufacturers goes further than some of its business colleagues in endorsing the move to a single administrator as well. Its preference: a good manager with "hands on" business experience. Unlike some of its colleagues, the NAM also supports continued mandatory standard setting powers for the agency.

"We do think there's something to be said for keeping the club," says NAM assistant counsel Jan Amundson who explains that otherwise states could preempt the federal standard and manufacturers might have to produce a different product for California than for Michigan.

Business and trade associations do not necessarily agree on exactly what they want the agency to become, but most brush off the lack of unity as minor.

"I think the differences are more perceived than substantial," says Jeff Perlman, director of government operations for the US Chamber of Commerce, an organization that supports the Reagan budget proposals across the board. "Some people think more is possible than other do."

Virtually everyone who has been watching the battle agrees that, whatever happens, the CPSC will never be the same again.

"Certainly nobody at this point thinks the agency is going to grow -- the question is how much weaker it's going to get," says Mark Silbergeld, director of the Washington office of Consumers Union.

"My impression is that the business community is calling the shots on this and that whatever it wants, it's likely to get," says Sandra Willett, executive vice-president of the National Consumers League. Regarding Capital Hill support , which once was strong on consumer issues, particularly among Democrats, she says: "It's been an about-face -- I don't see anyone who's responding to the consumer's need on this issue."

CPSC spokeswoman Heidi Bowers agrees that, for her agency, the fight ahead looks long and "lonely."

"The best possible thing for us would be to emerge intact with reasonable budget cuts," she says. "Generally, there's been a feeling around here that we don't have a lot of friends, and that we're facing a pretty tough battle. "

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