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The consumer agency is hampered by staff and budget cuts, as well as a vacancy on its three-member commission.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission could soon shrink to the point where it can't effectively protect the public, veteran Commissioner Thomas Moore says.

Many employees at the agency responsible for overseeing the safety of thousands of consumer products are looking for other jobs because "they have no confidence the agency will continue to exist - or will exist in any meaningful form," Moore said Thursday.

"The commission can either continue to decline in staff, resources and stature to the point where it is no longer an effective force in consumer protection," said Moore, "or with the support of Congress it can regain the important place in American society it was originally designed to have."

The number of full-time staffers has shrunk to about 400, less than half the size of the staff in 1980.

Complaints from business leaders about the agency created in the early 1970s resulted in the staff being sharply cut during the Reagan administration. Budget cuts or constraints since then have forced further reductions in the staff.

The safety commission usually negotiates voluntary recalls of unsafe products, because a voluntary agreement is considered a faster way to get a product off the shelves. If a company refuses to recall a product, the agency's commission has the authority to order a recall.

But such actions can be lengthy as they work their way through the legal system. The commission can also assess civil penalties on companies for failure to report possible problems and can set product standards.

Democrats in Congress have introduced legislation to increase funding and staffing for the agency as well as enhance its powers.

The agency also has been hampered by a vacancy on its three-member commission.

With only two of three commissioners, the agency had no quorum and has been unable to make rules about product standards, mandate recalls and assess civil penalties for the last six months.

Congress could soon restore those powers to the agency for a limited time despite the commission vacancy.