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A display of toys recalled by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2007. (AP photo)

The press and the new consumer protection law

SHOWCASE | October 21, 2008

An example of the way things are supposed to work: the Chicago Tribune focused on unsafe toys, cribs that strangled and other unsafe products—and Congress followed up with legislation.

By Michael R. Lemov

Consumer protection had a revival this year. Congress enacted the most sweeping consumer protection law in decades. The new Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, passed over the fierce opposition of many – but not all – of the Nation’s producers, became law on August 14. President Bush issued a highly critical White House statement, but did not veto the law. 

A new consumer product safety law was desperately needed. Downsized for twenty-five years, the Consumer Product Safety Commission had shrunk to near invisibility. It was unable to prevent repeated instances of unsafe toys, cribs that strangled, deadly magnets that kids swallowed and other unsafe products in the marketplace. The federal government appeared incapable of dealing with hazardous consumer products, particularly those imported from China, seemingly beyond the reach of U.S. law.

It was the press that made the public aware of the problem. The Chicago Tribune broke the story in a series of articles on “Hidden Hazards” which first appeared in May 2007. The Tribune assigned writer Patricia Callahan and a team of investigative reporters to follow up on its initial story about the death of a young suburban toddler who swallowed the tiny but powerful toy magnets. The Tribune found the Commission had known about the hazard for several years, but had failed to take action. The Tribune followed up with other product safety stories and sent a reporter to China to investigate why factories there were manufacturing jewelry with high levels of hazardous lead. The series, which continued throughout 2007, also documented the decline in resources and effectiveness of what it called a “myopic and docile” federal agency. 

The Tribune’s series, which won a Pulitzer prize and a George Polk Award, caught the attention of Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois, Mark Pryor, a former Arkansas attorney general and other Congressional leaders. A series of investigative hearings and new legislation rapidly followed. The Tribune, joined by other papers, kept at it throughout the legislative process, writing about a young, nine-month old who slipped through the rail of his defective crib and was asphyxiated. The story was published just as Congress took up the proposed product safety revision in September 2007. 

I know that the impact of the Tribune’s work and that of the many other papers that picked up the story was immense. I was there when the House and Senate staff began drafting the new product safety law. Time and again, press interest and aroused public attention on safer consumer products were major factors in the drafting of strong legislation.

The rejuvenated Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act includes more money for the Commission, mandates premarket testing of children’s products, includes tougher civil and criminal penalties for violations, and adds an innovative provision allowing state attorney generals to enforce some violations of federal law. 

Thirty-six years ago, Congress and the President engaged in a remarkably similar struggle over consumer protection. The goal then was apparently the same as now; making sure products that came into the home—from toys to bicycles to space heaters—were safe for consumers to use.

Two Congressional leaders—John Moss in the House of Representatives and Warren Magnuson in the Senate took the lead. Their committees established the National Commission on Product Safety, which held hearings around the country on unsafe products. The hearings documented incidents similar to those the press found last year. But, no one would have known about the problem unless the press had gotten involved. Newspapers, including The Washington Post and The New York Times assigned top reporters to cover flammable pajamas, flimsy football helmets and missile-throwing lawnmowers. A weakened president, Richard Nixon, facing Watergate and an election just months away, signed the bill despite industry protests. The veto word was never uttered. 

In the ensuing three decades, consumer protection faded fast. President Ronald Reagan won election in 1980 with a pledge to “get the government off your back.”  Smaller government and perhaps excessive deregulation became national policy. The Consumer Product Safety Commission shrunk over the decades to a staff and budget of less than half it had when it was originally set up in 1972. Consumer protection lost its appeal to politicians and the press. One Senate staff member told me, “You never hear the word ‘consumer’ up here anymore.” 

The consumer revival of this year, triggered by the press and a few determined political leaders, raises as many questions as it answers. Why, on an issue that is of the very core of the government’s responsibility to its people, did government allow the consumer product safety law and the Commission to erode so completely?  Why did it take so long for public opinion to demand more effective safety regulation?  One thing is certain. Intense press coverage sparked public outrage then and now. And political leadership willing to fight for a strong consumer bill was present then and now. The list of reasons for the consumer protection revival this year could, of course, be longer. The reasons are important because of what they tell us about American politics and the potential role of an involved press. 

But, whatever the reason, consumer protection made a modest comeback this year. At least for the time being.

Michael R. Lemov served as senior legislative counsel for Public Citizen during congressional consideration of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act in 2008. 

Posted by StarDodger
01/12/2009, 07:36 AM

Boy, the CPSC sure came back with a resounding 'Wham', didn't they? Mr. Lemov sure didn't do the American public any favors when he served as counsel during consideration of the CPSIA 2008, did he? Was he even awake during the proceedings?? How about he go back and now ask they repeal said legislation and save a few thousand businesses and the phrase Made in the USA? There's a reason February 10th is being called National Bankruptcy Day!

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