Eroding budget erodes consumer safety

Consumer safety commission's oversight is weak and out-of-date due to its disappearing budget

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The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) oversees more than 15,000 consumer goods and is charged with protecting Americans from product-related deaths, injuries, and property damage. Yet for years the agency has been understaffed and overwhelmed. In 2006 an eroding budget left the CPSC with less than half the staff it had about 30 years before. By the time a wave of lead-tainted Chinese imports hit U.S. stores in 2007 — prompting a recall of more than 25 million toys — the agency was down to 90 inspectors, with a mere 15 at U.S. ports and just one responsible for toy safety nationwide. A dwindling budget has also hampered the agency’s ability to keep up with changing technologies in the product market. The CPSC’s laboratory, which is crucial to its research and investigations, has not been upgraded in 32 years and, according to one critic, resembles “a bad high school lab.” The stakes are considerable. Dangerous consumer products cause damage to people and property estimated at $700 billion annually. The Bush administration allocated $63.3 million for the CPSC in fiscal year 2008, which, accounting for inflation, is less than half of what the agency was budgeted in 1974. At this rate, the agency could only employ a staff of 401, the smallest in its history. Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, managed to secure $80 million for the agency at the end of 2007, a near-30 percent increase from the previous year. A CPSC spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment, but acting chairwoman Nancy Nord reported to Congress in March that they are “putting these new funds to very good use.”

Follow-up:
In August, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 was signed into law, which proposed strengthening the agency’s enforcement and bulking up resources. The act has authorized budget increases over five years, starting in fiscal year 2010. But even with a larger budget of $80 million, the CPSC says the amount is insufficient to carry out its mission. In August the agency requested an added $30 million to meet the new mandates of the 2008 law and, although the House and Senate have proposed increases of $15 million and $20 million respectively, these funds are not guaranteed. The $700 billion bailout in response to the current economic crisis could delay the appropriation of funds for the CPSC.

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