Congress has finally moved to stem the tide of dangerous products that retailers and manufacturers unload on American consumers. The Senate passed legislation Thursday that would give more money and teeth to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The bill is better than what the House passed in December. That version comes nowhere close to ensuring safety standards in a global marketplace.
Both the Senate and the House would increase the commission's staff and budget. They also would expand the agency's ability to test and police against unsafe products. But only the Senate would give the government a chance to slow the flood of defective goods. It would provide more money than the House to add staff; the agency's 400 employees are half the number it had in 1980. The Senate also would double the House's proposal to raise the cap on fines, to $20-million from the current $1.8-million. That bump is still too small. But it would capture the attention of manufacturers, especially the small and upstart suppliers.
The Senate legislation distinguishes itself by moving to end the failed approach of relying on the industry to voluntarily clean up its act. The bill would clear the way for states to move against companies should the federal government fail to, provide for a public database of product complaints and extend whistle-blower protection to corporate employees. This comprehensive strategy would make the government more accountable.
Legislative conferees should embrace the Senate version. The recall of hundreds of products last year, including millions of Chinese-made toys, showed how inadequate the present system is at protecting Americans, especially children, from the influx of dangerous products made overseas. The number of recalls in October for products with lead set a 30-year high. Already, in the first seven days of this month, the safety commission has recalled 646,000 items — everything from toasters and compressors to candle holders, grills, gas caps and toys. With so many everyday items a threat, it is time to send a strong, clear message to manufacturers and retailers: Americans are not guinea pigs.