The Consumer Product Safety Enhance the Improvements Act

Reading about Jim McClelland of Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana (see this post), we’re reminded that Goodwill and other thrift store operators were among the many victims of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). Thrift stores sold used toys, books and children’s clothing, which could conceivably have minute traces of hints of small amounts of lead, maybe. A warm winter coat for $10? Sorry, not this year, honey. Its zipper is illegal under the CPSIA.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has been working on a bill that would accomplish some limited improvements to the CPSIA, the Consumer Product Safety Enhancement Act. At a subcommittee hearing on April 29, Jim Gibbons, head of Goodwill Industries Industries, testified in general support of the new legislation. Rosario Palmieri, vice president at the National Association of Manufacturers, did as well.

The committee’s consideration of the Consumer Product Safety Enhance the Improvements Act was set aside, however, as it shifted to more topical, attention-grabbing legislation, the Motor Vehicle Safety Act.

Question: If the motor vehicle safety legislation passes, will Congress be back a few years later to fix it, just like the CPSIA?

The bills share many similarities: Both responded to legitimate safety concerns that were elevated to consumer crises by the media, politicians, lawyers and activists, that is, the Chinese toy scare in the first case, and sudden acceleration problems in the second. The committee in Congress considering the bills are the same: House Energy and Commerce and the Senate Commerce Committee. Both pieces of legislation have been shaped by “consumer activists” and trial lawyers in order to increase litigation, cash flow and political clout. (See Shopfloor, “What’s the Goal? Improving Vehicle Safety or More Litigation?” and Point of Law, “Federal preemption, falling away in the motor vehicle safety bill.” In the case of the consumer product legislation, the national media did not bother to report potential negative consequences to consumers or manufacturers; the reporting of the possible harm from the motor vehicle bill is still thin, but it has improved.

A major difference between the two bills: The consumer product safety bill was embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike, passing the House by 424-1 and the Senate by 89-3. It was signed into law by President George W. Bush, whose administration oversaw a vast expansion of regulation.

This time around, Republicans are showing more skepticism, sharply questioning the impact of the motor vehicle regulation and litigation bill. The Energy and Commerce Committee passed the bill out by a vote of 31-21, and during the mark-up session several Republicans made strongly worded arguments about the bill’s costs, burdens on consumers, and encouragement of lawsuits. The public is certainly being better served by this informed debate than they were by the near-unanimous congressional approbation of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.

So, if the motor vehicle bill passes, will its manifest errors and excesses lead to corrective legislation down the road, just like the CPSIA? We’re doubtful. The CPSIA’s egregious overreach affected not only manufacturers and major industries like off-road vehicles, it also hammered many small, home-based businesses — handmade toys, knitted products, etc., — and sympathetic groups like thrift stores and libraries. Their grassroots outrage helped generate the pressure needed for fixing the CPSIA.

The motor vehicle bill, on the other hand, will overwhelmingly affect just the motor vehicle industry (and its customers). Consumers will suffer the impact of increased litigation, new taxes, and higher vehicle costs, but the grassroots energy will be missing.

Still, who knows? Maybe Congress will learn from its mistakes, take the time to examine where it went wrong with the CPSIA and apply those lessons to the Motor Vehicle Safety Act. That would be a much smarter approach than being forced in the future to produce a Motor Vehicle Safety Enhance the Improvements Act after the damage to consumers and manufacturers had been done.

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