Senate Democrats clashed Wednesday with President Bush's nominee to head the Consumer Product Safety Commission, charging that in problems with infant bath chairs, baby walkers and children's bunk beds she has been more protective of manufacturers than consumers.
"To put you as head of this commission is wrong because we need a fighter," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told Mary Sheila Gall in a hearing on her nomination. "We need someone who can stand up and advocate."
Several Democratic members of the Senate Commerce Committee, including Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), said Gall's 10-year record as a Republican member of the commission shows that she has been conciliatory toward manufacturers while often blaming parents and other consumers for misusing products that have failed.
Committee Chairman Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) did not express opposition to Gall's nomination but noted that some consumer organizations have criticized her for opposing the adoption of mandatory standards "even when evidence exists . . . of industry's noncompliance with a voluntary standard."
Wyden and Kerry said that Gall has resisted mandatory standards for products for babies despite hundreds of deaths and serious injuries that have been associated with them.
"I'm afraid this nominee is an early signal as to where the administration stands on basic consumer protection," Wyden said. He told Gall that her "philosophy does not seem compatible with an activist role in consumer protection."
Defending herself, Gall said her voting record at the commission "shows that I do not hesitate to support recalls when products are dangerous and to impose penalties when businesses have violated commission regulations."
She insisted that she has achieved beneficial results by working with manufacturers when the safety of products has been questioned. "You can club people over the head or you can sit down and work something out with them.
"On questions of enforcement . . . I voted approximately 97% of the time with the majority."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) supported Gall, declaring that during the Clinton administration she usually voted with the two other commissioners, both Democrats. He noted that President Clinton renominated her as the agency's sole Republican in 1999. One of the three commissioners must be from the minority party.
McCain said Gall is being unfairly portrayed "as a coldhearted industry pawn."
Another committee member, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), commended Gall for "applying common sense to regulatory decisions."
Gall, a single mother with two children, is a former Republican congressional aide who became an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services in the Reagan and Bush administrations before the first President Bush appointed her to an eight-year term on the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1991.
With 11 Republicans on the 23-member Commerce Committee likely in her corner, and with Hollings appearing somewhat neutral, Gall appears to have sufficient votes from the committee to send her nomination to the full Senate for confirmation. Hollings was unsure whether his panel would vote before Congress begins its August recess, or when the full Senate would take it up.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) took the unusual step of speaking out against Gall on the eve of her confirmation hearing. "I don't believe she is qualified," he told reporters. "I think it would make virtually meaningless the role of the [commission]."
Created in 1972, the independent government agency oversees about 15,000 products ranging from infant equipment to fire sprinklers. It works with companies to recall dangerous products and develop voluntary safety standards, but it also has the power to enforce mandatory safety standards and to ban defective products.
Hollings said that "defective products contribute to more than 20,000 deaths and close to 30 million injuries each year, and they cause the death of more children than any health-related disease."
Gall acknowledged that in 1993 she voted against initiating tough standards on baby walkers, despite reports that infants had been killed or injured while using them. She said she opted instead to urge the continued improvement of the walkers through voluntary standards.
She took the same approach in 1994 on infant bath seats after a petition to ban them was filed with the commission.
"But the controversy surrounding baby bath seats is perhaps the best example of where I believe my opponents' criticism is misguided," she told senators. "Bath seats and rings are products designed to facilitate the bathing of a slippery, squirmy infant. Unfortunately, some caregivers left infants in such bath seats unattended in tubs of water, with the tragic result that the infants drowned."
Gall said her policy is not to accuse product manufacturers of liability when parents or caregivers are negligent or misuse a product.
However, Boxer responded that "a child doesn't choose his parents, so we must protect the child by ensuring the best products that can be designed."
Gall noted that last year the commission developed "new data that showed infants were tipping over in bath seats and sliding through the leg openings even in the presence of caregivers."
As a result, she said, "I joined my colleagues and voted to begin a rule-making that has as its objective the development of a performance standard for baby bath seats. . . . I think I should be given credit for changing my mind in the face of new evidence."