House passes toy safety bill, but it won’t be ready for Christmas

The House on Wednesday passed a bill to strengthen the federal agency that oversees safety standards for toys and other consumer goods, but opposition to a more aggressive Senate version likely means a final measure won’t be ready for Christmas.

Democratic leaders had hoped to pass a bill with increased funding for the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and tougher lead standards for toys before heading home for the holidays.

ADVERTISEMENT
The push followed a spike this year in the number of toys recalled due to safety hazards, including excessive lead levels in paint or embedded in the product itself. More than 25 million toys have been recalled this year, most of which were imported from China.

While the recalls amount to less than 1 percent of the 3 billion toys sold annually, news accounts of recalls of popular toys like Dora the Explorer and Barbie dolls due to excessive lead levels created a public outcry and a rush on Capitol Hill to pass legislation to overhaul the CPSC.

Highlighting the political sensitivity of the issue, a Bush Cabinet member on Wednesday laid out the administration’s principles on the safety of all imports, including toys, foods and medicines.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, who chaired an interdepartmental working group on import safety and has met with officials from China and other foreign governments, made clear during a speech at the National Press Club that the United States would slam the door shut on nations or companies that fail to adequately certify the safety and quality of the products shipped to American consumers.

“We want the Chinese government to have access to our markets; we want to have access to [theirs]. But if you’re going to produce goods and products for American consumers, they need to meet American standards for safety and quality,” Leavitt said.

Failure to do so will have ramifications for international trade and for the economies of exporting countries. “The ‘Made in China’ brand will, over time, be seriously undermined if we don’t deal with this issue,” Leavitt said he told Chinese officials. “The market will punish [bad actors] far more quickly than any due-process government can,” Leavitt said.

Because the CPSC oversees more than toys, manufacturers of all stripes have been drawn into the debate over the legislation.

Industry lobbyists favored the House version, which some consumer groups said didn’t go far enough to protect consumers.

In an e-mail sent prior to the House vote, the National Association of Manufacturers said that “the marketplace needs to be free of unsafe consumer products that could pose a risk of injury to consumers.”

The House bill would increase the CPSC budget from around $62 million this year to around $100 million in 2011. It also calls for $20 million to improve the agency’s research and development and testing facilities, and increases potential civil penalties from the current maximum of $1.25 million to $10 million.

It also lowers allowable lead levels from 600 parts per million to 90 parts per million.

Ed Krenik, a lobbyist for the Power Tool Institute, called the House measure a “carefully crafted compromise” that will impose tough new standards on the industry.

Though the measure was criticized by some consumer groups, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) supported the House bill.

Rachel Weintraub, CFA’s director of product safety and senior counsel, said the House bill makes “meaningful improvements” to a “broken product safety system.”

Weintraub said she believed the Senate would pass its own version of the bill shortly after lawmakers return from recess.

Some consumer groups, however, are holding out for the Senate bill, which was crafted by Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).

That bill would increase potential civil penalties to $100 million and give state attorneys general the right to collect penalties, both provisions strongly opposed by the business lobby.

The Senate bill also calls for a larger CPSC budget. Funding levels would rise to more than $140 million in 2015. Also, manufacturers would have less time than under the House bill to meet the new lead standards.

According to a report released Wednesday by the consumer group Public Citizen, however, neither the House measure nor the tougher Senate version will address one of the main culprits in the wave of toy recalls this year: trade policies that have driven domestic toy manufacturers to move their operations overseas.  

As recently as the 1970s, around 86 percent of the toys sold in the United States were made here by a domestic toy industry that employed 60,000 American workers, according to Public Citizen.

Now that number has been reduced to around 9,000 workers as the vast majority of the toys American children play with are manufactured overseas, where safety standards aren’t as stringently enforced.

In addition to beefing up the powers of the CPSC, Congress should alter provisions in U.S. trade agreements that encourage offshoring of manufacturing and limit border inspections and product safety standards, the Public Citizen report states.

Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, said trade deals are the “root cause” in the higher incidence of toy recalls. Fewer than a dozen recalls occurred annually when most toys were made in the United States, according to the group. This year, there have been over 70 recalls.

Jeffrey Young contributed to this report.