President Obama finally named his pick to head the long-neglected Consumer Product Safety Commission on Tuesday and called for a big increase in funding for the agency.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that it looks as if he's using the appointment as a political pat on the head for a prominent supporter, and not necessarily as a first step toward kick-starting an agency that for too long has come up short in safeguarding the public.
Obama said he would nominate Inez Moore Tenenbaum to serve as the commission's first chairperson in nearly three years.
The White House cited Tenenbaum's "extensive experience in administrative and regulatory matters." But she has no track record to speak of in consumer affairs.
Aside from serving two terms as South Carolina's education superintendent, Tenenbaum's main claim to fame was an unsuccessful Senate campaign in 2004. She now serves as special counsel to the McNair Law Firm for public school finance issues.
Oh, and she was co-chair of Obama's South Carolina campaign steering committee.
As if to compensate for Tenenbaum's seeming shortcomings as a consumer advocate, the president also tapped Robert S. Adler, a professor of legal studies at the University of North Carolina, to fill one of two new seats as the agency expands to five commissioners from three.
Adler previously served as an advisor to the Consumer Product Safety Commission and sits on the board of Consumers Union.
"We're optimistic that new leadership will breathe new life into this agency," said Liz Hitchcock, public health advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a watchdog organization. "There's a lot of work to be done."
The Consumer Product Safety Commission has jurisdiction over more than 15,000 types of products, including toys, power tools and kitchen appliances. It now has about 400 staffers, fewer than half the number when the agency was established in 1973.
The position of commission chair has been vacant since July 2006. That's when Hal Stratton, an appointee of former President Bush, departed to take a job with a law firm that specialized in fighting class-action lawsuits filed by consumers.
Bush nominated Michael Baroody, a top manufacturing industry lobbyist, to head the commission in March 2007. Baroody withdrew from consideration after lawmakers demanded copies of his severance agreement with the National Assn. of Manufacturers.
Bush never nominated anyone else. Nancy Nord, another Bush appointee to the commission, has served as acting chairwoman.
If approved by the Senate, Tenenbaum will inherit a Consumer Product Safety Commission that has long lacked the money and manpower to adequately inspect factories and keep tabs on products before they reach the marketplace.
She'll also take charge of a bureaucracy that is seldom a model of speed and efficiency. To cite just one of many examples, the commission recently settled a case in which a toddler died in 2005 after swallowing magnets that came loose from a toy called Magnetix.
After the incident was reported to the commission, it took four months for agency staffers to negotiate a voluntary recall of the product with its manufacturer, Mega Brands Inc., during which time numerous parents (including myself) continued buying the play sets for their kids.
This is nuts.
Along with more funding and personnel, what the Consumer Product Safety Commission needs is the ability to order the immediate suspension of sales of any product suspected of posing a danger to the public because of one or more incidents, and to unilaterally order a recall if required.
As it stands, the commission has to jump through multiple bureaucratic hoops to order a so-called involuntary recall -- a process that can take more than a year if the manufacturer challenges the decision.
In the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2008, the commission negotiated 563 voluntary recalls with manufacturers. These involved tens of millions of individual products, such as defective cribs and toys with lead paint.
Not one involuntary recall was ordered by federal regulators last year. Nor was one ordered the year before
that, nor the year before
You have to go all the way back to 1998 to find the last time the Consumer Product Safety Commission successfully ordered the recall of a defective product from store shelves -- fire sprinklers that the agency said "could likely fail in a fire."
But giving the commission more bite wouldn't be easy. The powerful National Assn. of Manufacturers would almost certainly fight any move to increase the government's product-safety regulatory powers.
"None of the problems we've had in the past have been the result of insufficient regulatory power," said Rosario Palmieri, the association's vice president of regulatory policy. "The problem has been insufficient resources and manpower."
He said manufacturers welcome Obama's call for more funding and are particularly eager to see increased efforts to crack down on unsafe goods produced overseas.
No argument there. Significantly better safeguards need to be put into place to ensure that products manufactured abroad meet U.S. safety standards before making it to retail outlets. (Yes, I'm talking about you, China.)
But the Consumer Product Safety Commission will always be playing catch-up when it comes to dealing with defective goods. That's why it's vital that the agency have the ability to move quickly when a potentially unsafe product comes to light.
Obama called product safety a priority for his administration. "We must do more to protect the American public -- especially our nation's children -- from being harmed by unsafe products," he said.
It seems trite to say, but product-safety policy can be boiled down to a single phrase: Better safe than sorry.
The sooner Tenenbaum understands that, the safer we'll all be.
David Lazarus' column runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.