White House pick for CPSC chief has consumer advocates alarmed

The list of White House appointees dodging skeptical Democrats is about to grow one name longer — that is, if the interest groups lining up to oppose product-safety nominee Mike Baroody have anything to say about it.

But with the new Congress juggling oversight of multiple agency missteps, will the prospect of a veteran manufacturing lobbyist chairing the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and regulating the industry that once employed him, prove unsettling enough to sway Democratic votes?

ADVERTISEMENT
Gerie Voss, regulatory counsel at the American Association for Justice (AAJ), acknowledged pangs of nomination fatigue among Senate staffers.

“The input we’re getting is … they’d seen so many bad nominees come through that this was, ‘Oh, this is just another bad nominee,’” Voss said.

“What we’re trying to impress [upon them] is that this isn’t just going to be a bad nominee serving in a different country,” she added. “This is someone who’s going to directly affect the children of our country.”

The last nominee to spark Democratic ire was Sam Fox, the current ambassador to Belgium.

When the majority party appeared intractably opposed to Fox, who helped bankroll Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the White House withdrew Fox from consideration and recess-appointed him days later during the April recess, sidestepping the Senate.

The AAJ, representing trial lawyers, is linking up with several consumer-advocacy groups in a bid to bring down Baroody’s nomination. The groups contend that his past at the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the Reagan-era Labor Department puts him in a class with Fox and other recent agency nominees blocked by Democrats.

The Consumers Union (CU) is meeting with aides this week to discuss its concerns and likely will send a letter of opposition to the Hill, an unusual step for the normally apolitical group.

“We find it hard to imagine that Mr. Baroody could suddenly reverse course and oppose initiatives that would harm consumers,” Sally Greenberg, CU’s senior product safety counsel, said in an e-mail.

Conscious of the Capitol’s Internet savvy, the AAJ has launched a blog ad campaign and a website at www.stopbaroody.com dedicated to educating lawmakers and aides about NAM’s laissez-faire approach to safety rules and corporate liability. The ads, illustrated with a grinning fox to depict Baroody as the proverbial “fox in the henhouse,” mark the first time that the AAJ has publicly opposed an executive-branch nominee.

“This is a dangerous nomination and we’ve committed substantial resources to defeating it,” William Schulz, AAJ vice president for communications, said.

But alarms raised at the AAJ, Consumer Federation of America, Public Citizen, the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups and other liberal-leaning groups may not create the storm that Baroody’s critics are awaiting. Although the Senate Commerce Committee plans a confirmation hearing a week from today, several panel members declined to discuss their stances on Baroody, citing insufficient knowledge about his background.

Among the senators declining comment were Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who received a zero on NAM’s legal-reform rankings last Congress. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) chairman of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the CPSC, said he has already met with Baroody and would consider a second sit-down.

“I told him my concerns, given the fact that he comes out of industry and the CPSC is there to protect consumers,” Pryor said. He described Baroody as “a straight shooter” but acknowledged that his background “is going to raise some questions.”

Hank Cox, NAM’s vice president of communications, said Baroody is concerned about the risk to his reputation that the confirmation process can bring. Still, Cox noted, “he’s not in tears or anything.”

“For people who don’t know him, have never met him, and the only thing they know about him is that he works for NAM — there are certain people [for whom] that in itself is an indictment,” Cox said. “He’s looking forward to his day in the sun.”

Cox also offered a reality check to those believing a former lobbyist should not lead the CPSC. “The Bush administration is not going to appoint somebody from the Consumer Federation,” he said. “It’s not going to be like [when President] Jimmy Carter put Joan Claybrook in charge of the highway-traffic safety administration. That’s not how it works.”

Claybrook, Public Citizen’s longtime president, chuckled at the analogy and offered one of her own. Just as the president installed a hands-on chairman at the Securities and Exchange Commission after the Enron implosion, Claybrook said, the CPSC should have a chief unafraid to be tough on industry.

“Not someone who’s going to be the best consumer advocate ever, just someone who doesn’t have a long history of advocating for business. That’s what we’re asking for,” Claybrook said.

Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.), a Commerce member whose father, like Baroody, served under Reagan, said the nominee would listen to all members’ concerns.

“Even people who don’t agree with him on policy have found him to be fair and direct,” Sununu said.

The CPSC, charged with protecting consumers from defects in more than 15,000 types of products, has struggled with meager budgets and the lack of a workable quorum for months.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a Commerce member, remarked that the incoming chairman would have his work cut out for him.

“How are they going to get anything done if they don’t have the funds to do it?” Klobuchar said.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) was one of the few Commerce members who said they had met with Baroody. Carper said it was premature to discuss his support for the nominee, but was not surprised that Baroody’s work on contentious asbestos-litigation legislation had galvanized opponents.

“Given his work” with senators on the erstwhile asbestos bill, Carper said, “I can understand where our trial-lawyer friends are coming from. … I’m sure I’ll hear about it.”