With Christmas behind us and Santa come and gone, parents may be wondering if all those new toys strewn around the house are safe. After all, it wasn't long before the holidays that we learned that millions of toys sold here were coated in lead paint that could cause brain damage, or hid magnets that, if swallowed, could cause potentially fatal intestinal damage. But those toys were recalled. So we can trust that the ones that ended up under the tree this Christmas are safe, right?
Not really. That's because the problem wasn't just with Mattel, which made the lead-coated Barbies and magnetic Polly Pocket dolls, or RC2, which made the toxic Thomas & Friends trains. And it wasn't just in China, where factory owners, under pressure from importers, used dangerous materials to cut costs. The third prong of the problem is in Washington, where the Consumer Product Safety Commission, for years a skeletal agency, has under George W. Bush been essentially beheaded--run by political operatives whose cause is not consumer protection but government evisceration.
Acting CPSC chair Nancy Nord recently revealed the leadership's inclinations when she joined industry lobbyists in opposing a Senate bill that would increase her agency's power. She later admitted to traveling on the toy industry's dime.
But Nord is no pioneer. The CPSC's weakening dates back to the Reagan era, when the agency was first targeted for dissolution under the assumption that manufacturers can police themselves. Clinton appointee Ann Brown struggled to revive the agency. But Harold "Hal" Stratton, appointed chair by George W. Bush in 2002, swiftly restored the antiregulatory approach.
From the beginning, Stratton seemed an unlikely choice as the nation's consumer advocate. As Attorney General in New Mexico, Stratton had objected when AGs in other states brought consumer protection cases, claiming they were trying "to impose their own anti-business, pro-government regulation views." Later, representing oil and mining companies, he'd co-founded the Rio Grande Foundation to promote "individual freedom, limited government, and economic opportunity." And as a member of the Federalist Society and board of the Washington Legal Foundation, Stratton had joined the legal brotherhoods whose principal reason for being is to oppose government regulation as an intrusion on liberty and interference with free markets.
Stratton continued to promote that philosophy when he arrived in Washington. According to former CPSC staff and consumer advocates, on Stratton's watch the already feeble agency disintegrated: it lost more staff, reduced companies' requirements to report dangerous products and took years to investigate deadly hazards. "Hal Stratton was very weak in terms of promoting the agency's mission," says Robert Adler, professor of management at the University of North Carolina and former counsel to the CPSC.
More specifically, Stratton expanded loopholes that allowed companies not to report dangers involving their products; passed a mattress flammability standard that prevented consumers from suing over burn injuries; interfered with his agency's effort to recall dangerous BB guns; and spent much of his time traveling and dining with manufacturing executives, often at industry expense. But perhaps the most damning criticism of Stratton is that he never pressed Congress for the means necessary for the CPSC to do its job. With only half the staff it had in 1980 (including just one full-time toy safety inspector), the CPSC could investigate only a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of complaints it received each year. Meanwhile, those investigations could take years while dangerous products continued to injure or even kill consumers. Mega Brands' Magnetix toys, for example, which contained powerful magnets that toddlers were swallowing, weren't recalled until one child died and twenty-seven others suffered serious intestinal injuries, despite repeated consumer warnings to the CPSC.
Hal Stratton no longer has to worry about such matters. As head of the "Product Safety" practice in the Washington office of the corporate law firm Dykema Gossett, he now advises companies on how to keep government regulators off their backs. "Being [at the CPSC] gave me the insight to know what the regulators expect," he has said. Stratton also consults for Intertek, a product-testing company that stands to profit handsomely from all the attention the avalanche of dangerous products has attracted. Pending legislation would require manufacturers to hire companies like Intertek (which lobbies the CPSC) to test their products before putting them on the market.
Stratton professes to be baffled about why all these product-safety problems are emerging now. And he is unapologetic about his tenure as chairman: "You can't test everything," he says. Were he still in the chairman's role, the mounting attention to his agency's failure might be making him squirm. But, as he put it recently, from his vantage point in private practice, "the more demand the better."