Archives: December, 2010

The CPSC’s Defective New Complaints Database

We are told constantly that government can play a beneficial role in the marketplace by taking steps to make sure consumers are more fully informed about the risks of the goods and services they use. But what happens when the government itself helps spread health and safety information that is false or misleading? That question came up recently in the controversy over New York City’s misleading nutrition-scare ad campaign, and it now comes up again in a controversy over a new database of complaints about consumer products sponsored by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

As part of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA), Congress mandated that the CPSC create a “publicly available consumer product safety information database” compiling consumer complaints about the safety of products. Last week, by a 3-2 majority, the commission voted to adopt regulations that have dismayed many in the business community by ensuring that the database will needlessly include a wide range of secondhand, false, unfounded or tactical reports. The Washington Times editorializes:

…[Under the regulations as adopted last week] anybody who wants to trash a product, for whatever reason, can do so. The commission can leave a complaint on the database indefinitely without investigating its merits “even if a manufacturer has already provided evidence the claim is inaccurate,” as noted by Carter Wood of the National Association of Manufacturers’ “Shopfloor” blog….

Trial lawyers pushing class-action suits could gin up hundreds of anonymous complaints, then point the jurors to those complaints at the “official” CPSC website as [support for] their theories that a product in question caused vast harm. “The agency does not appear to be concerned about fairness and does not care that unfounded complaints could damage the reputation of a company,” said [Commissioner Nancy] Nord.

Commissioners Nord and Anne Northup introduced an alternative proposal (PDF) aimed at making the contents of the database more reliable and accurate but were outvoted by the Democratic commission majority led by Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. Nord: “under the majority’s approach, the database will not differentiate between complaints entered by lawyers, competitors, labor unions and advocacy groups who may have their own reasons to ‘salt’ the database, from those of actual consumers with firsthand experience with a product.” Commissioner Northup has published posts criticizing the regulations for their definitions of who can submit a report, who counts as a consumer, and who counts as a public safety entity.

For those interested in reading further, Rick Woldenberg, a leading private critic of the law who blogs at AmendTheCPSIA.com, has critically commented on the politics of the proposal here, here, here, here, and here. More coverage: ShopFloor with followups here and here, New York Times, Sean Wajert/Mass Tort Defense. I’ve been blogging for the past two years at my website Overlawyered about the wider problems with the CPSIA law, including its effects on books published before 1985, thrift stores, natural wooden toys, ballpoint pens, bicycles, plush animals, Irish dance costumes, rocks used in science class and many more. Most of these problems remain unresolved thanks to the inflexible wording of the law as well as, sometimes, the unsympathetic attitude of the commission majority. I’ve heard that bringing overdue investigative oversight to the ongoing CPSIA disaster is shaping up as a priority for many incoming lawmakers on the (newly Republican-led) House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose outgoing chair, California Democrat Henry Waxman, is closely identified with the law and its consumer-group backers.

Rep. Kingston’s Spending Cut Plan

An indicator of the incoming House Republican majority’s seriousness about cutting spending will be which members the party selects to head the various committees.

Many of the members in line to chair committees leave a lot to be desired from a limited government perspective (see here and here). In particular, the top candidates in line to chair the critical House Appropriations Committee, Reps. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), are about as inspiring as re-heated meatloaf when it comes to their potential for pushing serious spending reforms.

According to the Wall Street Journal, appropriator Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), is eyeing the chairman’s gavel even though he’s only fifth in line in terms of seniority. Kingston has put together a spending restraint plan in PowerPoint for consideration by the 26 member Republican Steering Committee, which will decide on committee chairs.

Although the Journal notes that Kingston is “no spending virgin,” there is a lot to like about his plan, which is promisingly entitled “Changing the Culture: A New Vision for the House Appropriations Committee.”

Here are my thoughts on the plan’s contents:

  • One slide shows a list of “Big Stuff” and places at the top “State Addiction to the Federal Government.” The language is perfect and indicates that Kingston recognizes that federal aid to the states is a significant issue that needs to be addressed. Reinstituting “fiscal federalism” is one of the chief principles of reform addressed on the Downsizing Government website.
  • The same slide acknowledges the trillion dollar cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This inclusion perhaps signals that Kingston is prepared to get serious about reining in defense spending, unlike many Republicans.
  • Kingston proposes new spending caps that would work to eventually reduce total federal spending to 18 percent of GDP. He notes that “This approach would require Congress to focus on the actual problem of spending, as opposed to deficits, which are a symptom.” Only interest on the debt would be off limits from sequestration should Congress fail to adhere to the spending caps.
  • Kingston calls federal grants “the new earmarks” and singles out the $7.2 billion broadband grant program for criticism, noting that it “pay[s] companies to do what they would do on their own.” As I recently explained, eliminating earmarks but keeping the federal grant programs that fund the same activities would amount to a Pyrrhic victory.
  • Kingston calls for more “budget hawks” on the appropriations committee, and singles out spending reformer Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) for inclusion on the committee. He also calls for getting “members off subcommittees in which they are unable to take hard votes.” Amen. If Republicans want to cut spending, then they need to put members on the committees who will actually vote to do it.

The Journal explains that the GOP leadership, in particular incoming House Speaker John Boehner, had better take Kingston’s candidacy seriously:

Officially, committee chairs are selected by the 26 or so person GOP Steering Committee, but Mr. Boehner has five votes on the panel and he can block anyone from getting the nod. A Steering Committee decision can be overturned by a vote of the full GOP House conference, and the leadership should worry that selecting someone like Mr. Rogers could lead to a rank-and-file revolt.

Republicans claim to be the party of fiscal probity and that they’ve learned from their demise in 2006. Mr. Kingston’s proposals are the kind of creative thinking that Republicans are going to need to carry out the principles and agenda they say they believe in.

When tea party voters helped give the Republicans a second chance at reining in government spending, they didn’t have in mind re-heated meatloaf – they want steak. Boehner and the House GOP leadership would be wise to oblige, or else these voters might dine elsewhere in 2012.

Warner Brothers Distributes “The Cartel”

Early this year, when I heard that Paramount had picked up the education documentary “Waiting for Superman” after its award winning appearance at the Sundance Film Festival, I was honestly surprised. The film is not kind to the status quo education monopoly in this country, and Hollywood does not have a history of indicting that system as a whole. But its director was an Obama-supporting, “Inconvenient Truth” shooting Democrat who perhaps, I thought, had made the message palatable to the Left Coast establishment. It didn’t necessarily portend a fundamental change in Hollywood’s tastes.

But that was months ago. Times change. Yesterday I learned from Bob Bowdon, director of the brutally candid education expose “The Cartel” that his film has been picked up for distribution by Warner Brothers Studios. It’s now available not just for sale but instant viewing on Amazon.com.

Remember 2010. It’s the year Americans finally started to tear down education’s Berlin Wall.