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Obama needs to add consumer agency to his to-do list

A vacancy soon on the five-member Consumer Product Safety Commission could leave it deadlocked on issues facing the remaining two Democrats and two Republicans.

August 19, 2011|David Lazarus

President Obama has a lot on his plate right now. Here's one more thing.

A vacancy will soon open on the five-member Consumer Product Safety Commission, which oversees the safety of more than 15,000 types of products, from highchairs to power tools.

If left unfilled, the commission could be deadlocked on important policy decisions as the remaining two Democratic and two Republican members vote along ideological lines, as has happened numerous times in the past.

"We've dealt with a deadlocked commission before," said Lisa Gilbert, deputy director of Congress Watch, a division of the advocacy group Public Citizen. "It can bring decision making to a halt."

This is the latest problem for the safety agency, which is under siege from conservative lawmakers who want to cut its funding for various activities, including a new database of consumer complaints about potentially defective goods.

A stalemate among commissioners wouldn't affect recalls of hazardous products — they're typically overseen by agency staff. But it could hold up important pending decisions on worldwide safety testing standards and new safety standards for various children's goods.

"The commission is still getting its feet under it after many years of budget cuts and not having a full complement of commissioners," said Ami Gadhia, policy counsel with Consumers Union. "This is an agency that for a long time hasn't had the resources to fully protect consumers."

The vacancy will result when Thomas Moore, who has served three terms as a commissioner, leaves Oct. 26. Moore was appointed twice by former President Bill Clinton and once by President George W. Bush.

He's seen by consumer advocates as a progressive who isn't shy about holding manufacturers accountable. Moore had intended to step down when his last term ended Oct. 26, 2010, but has stayed on until a successor could be named. By law, he can't serve any longer than one extra year.

"Commissioner Moore has always put consumers first," Inez Tenenbaum, the chairwoman of the safety commission, told me. "It's very important that we have a fifth commissioner with the same philosophy and commitment."

The president appoints the chairperson and fills two of the four remaining seats. The other two seats are filled by the minority party.

Tenenbaum has served as chairwoman since July 2009. She recently wrote in a strongly worded opinion piece that relations between the agency's Democratic and Republican appointees aren't always cordial.

Republican appointees Nancy Nord and Anne Northup, Tenenbaum said, "have sought to delay and distort our actions in an attempt to circumvent the will of American families and Congress."

She noted that Nord and Northup voted against creation of a searchable database of consumer complaints, which advocates say is an important tool for people to share information about potentially dangerous products.

"We faced another example of this obstructionism in our effort to make sure cribs are safe," Tenenbaum wrote. After 36 deaths were reported from November 2007 to April 2010, the commissioners voted unanimously in December to establish new safety standards.

"Sadly, two of my colleagues in the minority party then attempted to delay the rules from going into effect," Tenenbaum wrote. "They were for it, and then they were against it, all in an effort to put the interests of a few retailers over the interests of hundreds of thousands of parents and very young children."

Nord called Tenenbaum's comments unwarranted and "an extraordinary breach of collegiality." Northup said she regrets "that the chairman is unable to respect opinions with which she differs."

Tenenbaum told me her comments were "a very accurate characterization" of the agency's inner workings. "Every rule that we make is a struggle," she said. "It was time to speak out."

Consumer advocates say the White House is keeping possible replacements for Moore close to the vest. A handful of advocacy groups recently wrote a letter to Obama asking him to fill Moore's seat before it becomes vacant.

The White House declined to comment on the search for a successor. While no one is officially under consideration, insiders at the safety commission tell me that two names have quietly circulated: Kendrick Meek, a former Democratic congressman from Florida, and Artur Davis, a former Democratic congressman from Alabama.

If Obama were to nominate either man, he might be hoping that their experience on Capitol Hill would improve their chances in the Senate, which must approve any appointee to the safety commission.

This could be a real sticking point. It's possible that Republican senators will hold up any appointee until they gain ground on other issues, such as the composition and regulatory scope of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, from which Elizabeth Warren recently departed as director-in-waiting.

Again, it's not like the president doesn't have enough to keep him busy these days. But a deadlocked Consumer Product Safety Commission would be bad for consumers and bad for the country.

This is an appointment he should announce more sooner than later.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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