Toy woes may result in more power for safety agency

Senators are prepared to boost the Consumer Product Safety Commission's budget and legal authority so it can better keep unsafe toys and children's jewelry off store shelves, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said Wednesday.

But Durbin, who chaired an Appropriations subcommittee hearing on toy safety, made it clear they weren't going to do it without taking the agency to task.

CPSC acting Chairman Nancy Nord was chastised for not doing more about unsafe imported toys, while toy industry executives got comparatively mild treatment.

Durbin said he was "heartened" by the industry's cooperation. During the hearing, Toys R Us CEO Jerry Storch announced an improved recall-notification plan that includes e-mails to customers and a new section of its website devoted to safety. Robert Eckert, CEO of Mattel mat, which has recalled toys three times this summer, underscored new efforts to bolster testing and factory oversight. Carter Keithley, president of the 500-member Toy Industry Association, said the group is working on a testing and certification plan that it wants the CPSC to require for all toymakers.

But Durbin questioned whether the CPSC had done enough to keep unsafe imports out of the country and to keep the ones that get through off store shelves. He took issue with the agency's one-person toy testing program.

Nord noted that given the huge influx of imports, testing — especially by the government — is not the only solution. The industry needs to make sure toys are "manufactured safely in the first place," she said. Nord said several others are involved in toy safety and that the agency has discussed necessary improvements to its dilapidated testing laboratories — built in the 1950s for missile testing — with Congress for years.

There was much talk during the hearing about who's to blame for the CPSC not having enough resources. Durbin cited figures showing that the value of imported products has increased from $104 billion in 1974 to more than $1.8 trillion last year, yet the CPSC's staff has been cut in half during that time. CPSC Commissioner Thomas Moore, a Democrat, said this was the first time in his 12 years with the agency that there has been bipartisan realization that the CPSC needs help. Moore has warned repeatedly through the years that the CPSC had insufficient resources.

The CPSC isn't without blame for its budget crisis, said Sally Greenberg, Consumers Union product safety counsel. She said the agency, which is supposed to be independent, has failed to push the Bush administration for adequate funding.

Durbin — who said that when he returns home, constituents often ask the "legitimate question" about what's safe to buy for Christmas — acknowledged there's plenty of blame to go around. "China has failed. … The Consumer Product Safety Commission has failed by not providing adequate resources and staff, and Congress has failed," he said. "There are moments when we need government."