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What's behind GOP attack on product-safety database?

The Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee has approved a spending bill that cuts off all funding for the Consumer Product Safety Commission's online database of product complaints.

July 05, 2011|David Lazarus

What is it about consumer protection that Republican lawmakers don't like? Is it that they want to see their constituents fleeced and flimflammed by businesses? Is it that they don't care?

Or is it something as craven as carrying water for corporate interests simply because that's where the money is?

Whatever the reason, the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee has approved a spending bill that not only slashes the budget of the Consumer Product Safety Commission but also cuts off all funding for a recently launched database of product-safety complaints.

The online database is one of the most important consumer tools to emerge from Washington in years. It enables people to report potentially faulty or harmful products, as well as to research goods before making a purchase.

"If this bill passes, it will destroy the database," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety for the Consumer Federation of America. "They're trying to pull the plug on a vital consumer resource."

A provision included by Missouri Republican Jo Ann Emerson, who chairs the financial services subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, seems innocuous enough.

It says only that "none of the funds made available by this act may be used to carry out any of the activities described in section 6A of the Consumer Product Safety Act."

The Consumer Product Safety Act was a landmark bill passed in 1972 and updated in 2008 that created an agency charged with overseeing the safety of more than 15,000 types of products, from baby cribs to power tools.

The 2008 update strengthened the Consumer Product Safety Commission with new powers safeguarding whistle-blowers and cracking down on hazardous children's goods. Section 6A of the legislation required creation of the product-safety database.

If passed by the House and Senate, Emerson's innocuous-looking provision in the spending bill would in effect shut down the database by denying the safety commission funds to maintain it. At least $3 million has already been spent developing and launching the online tool.

"The thing that's so insidious is that the database is already up and running," Weintraub said. "This would basically waste all the money and resources that have gone into creating the database."

Emerson told me her budget plan for the safety commission "reflects some difficult choices."

"Funding should go for other priorities of the agency before being spent on a poor and inaccurate resource for consumers," she said. "The public deserves information from the government which is held to the highest standards, and the flaws in the database prevent it from serving the public interest."

Those flaws, Emerson said, include fostering inaccuracies online and making it difficult for manufacturers to respond.

This echoes protests lodged with the product-safety commission by manufacturers, who said the database could become a dumping ground for misleading information and unanswerable consumer gripes.

In reality, just the opposite has happened. According to the latest data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 84% of reports filed in the database include such specifics as the model and serial number of the product in question.

Eighty-two percent of people filing reports also gave permission for their contact information to be passed along to manufacturers.

"Consumers are going above and beyond what's asked of them," said Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the commission.

He said that of about 1,600 complaints now included in the database, only 194 were found to contain inaccuracies. Of this amount, most involved people mistakenly naming the wrong manufacturer of a product.

"These are mistakes that we can easily correct," Wolfson said.

So why is Emerson so opposed to the database? Perhaps the answer lies in her close ties with the business world. She raised more than $2 million in contributions in the 2009-10 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In February, Emerson received an Award for Manufacturing Legislative Excellence from the National Assn. of Manufacturers for her "consistent support of manufacturers and their employees across the United States."

The industry group honors lawmakers with a voting record of at least 70% "in support of NAM's positions on key manufacturing votes." It said Emerson voted in line with manufacturers 83% of the time.

A similar attempt to cut off funds for the product-safety database was attempted earlier by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.). His largest campaign donors last year were Kansas' Koch Industries and affiliated individuals, the Center for Responsive Politics found.

Koch Industries — run by billionaires Charles and David Koch, who are active in conservative causes — also reported spending more than $200,000 lobbying against creation of the database.

You've got to wonder why businesses are fighting so hard to keep this resource away from consumers. Is it because their fears are justified that we'll misuse this tool (all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding)?

Or is it because the last thing they want is a consuming public armed with the latest and most thorough information on the safety of their goods?

And if it's the latter, you might now ask, what are they trying to hide?

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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