Senate backs product safety overhaul

Times Staff Writer

Moving to reverse decades of limited federal oversight, the Senate voted Thursday to make sweeping changes to the government’s system of regulating toys, appliances and thousands of other household products.

The 79-13 vote could lead to a major expansion of the Consumer Product Safety Commission and stiffer penalties for companies that manufacture or distribute hazardous products.

And it may mean broad new public access to information about potentially dangerous products before they are recalled.

“This bill is the most significant product safety reform measure in recent history,” said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety at the Consumer Federation of America.


“Americans have been waiting for this solution to our broken product safety system.”

Manufacturers and retailers last year recalled more than 400 products, including millions of Chinese-made toys that contained lead paint, dangerous magnets or other hazards.

The recalls sparked an intense effort on Capitol Hill to strengthen the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has long had fewer investigative and enforcement tools than other federal regulatory agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Senate Democrats worked for months to build GOP support for increased federal oversight in the face of stiff industry resistance to new regulations.


The bill won the support of 33 Republicans, the two independents and 44 Democrats, including California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.

Thirteen GOP lawmakers voted against the bill, which some called a gift to trial attorneys.

“Lawsuits as far as the eye can see,” predicted Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.).

Presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) missed the vote.

The vote sets the stage for potentially difficult talks as Senate leaders work with their House counterparts to reconcile the differences between the bills approved by the two chambers.

The House bill -- passed unanimously in December with the blessing of influential industry groups -- is less expansive than the Senate legislation.

Thursday’s vote also could set up a confrontation with the White House, which has expressed strong opposition to several key provisions of the Senate bill.

The Bush administration, which tried unsuccessfully last year to put an executive from the National Assn. of Manufacturers at the head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, presided over a nearly 15% cut in agency staff between 2001 and 2007.


The legislation approved Thursday could dramatically reverse that.

The bill authorizes a phased $60-million increase in funding for the agency to boost its budget to $142 million by 2015, which, adjusted for inflation, would put the agency close to where it was in its heyday in the late 1970s.

The Senate bill would also:

Create an Internet database where consumers could post and search for complaints about potentially dangerous products.

Effectively ban lead in toys and require pre-market testing of children’s products by independent laboratories or certified labs owned by manufacturers.

Boost maximum civil penalties for safety violations to $20 million from $1.8 million.

Give state attorneys general authority to enforce federal product safety laws.

Extend new whistle-blower protections to employees who report safety violations.


“This will make a big difference in the integrity of the products Americans buy,” said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), the lead author of the bill. “It’s a good day for the Senate.”

The legislation marks a substantial victory for consumer groups, which have waged a long campaign to get the government to more aggressively protect Americans from potentially dangerous products.

And it was a rare setback for a coalition of manufacturers and retailers, led by the National Assn. of Manufacturers, that has been able to limit the agency’s authority for more than two decades.

On Wednesday, the manufacturers coalition, which argues that the bill would increase litigation and dissuade companies from cooperating with the federal government, sent a three-page letter to Senate leaders urging changes to the bill.

“The bill should be refocused to emphasize safety and safe imports and to remove provisions that would impose unnecessary burdens on U.S. companies,” leaders of the industry coalition wrote.

Industry groups have indicated that they will continue to press their case when House and Senate lawmakers convene to settle the differences between their bills.

Among other differences, the House bill does not mandate the creation of a consumer database, authorizes less money for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, sets lower penalties for violators and has no new whistle-blower protections.