New era for consumer protection as Republicans take helm of watchdog agency

Outgoing chair says consumers will “absolutely” be less safe.

February 14, 2017, 1:17 PM

— -- Consumer groups are bracing for a more pro-industry approach to safety, fearful that strides made in the name of product safety will be rolled back, as Republicans take the helm of the nation’s key consumer safety agency.

The Trump Administration last week elevated Ann Marie Buerkle, a Republican appointed to the commission in 2013, to the post of acting chairman. Buerkle replaces outgoing chair Elliot Kaye, a Democrat who stared down industry groups during the nearly three years he was in the position, calling out businesses for not being proactive enough on safety.

Kaye, who plans to stay on as a commissioner until his term expires in October 2020, bluntly told ABC News he expects the commission to do “an abrupt 180-degree on safety.”

In a press release, new acting Chairman Buerkle said, “While we are experiencing a change in leadership, CPSC’s mission remains the same and I look forward to continuing to work closely with all stakeholders in my new position.

The written statement added that “we are all consumers and what we do at CPSC impacts the lives and livelihoods of all Americans. If we take a thoughtful, collaborative approach, we will impact the culture of product safety in a positive and meaningful way.”

Through a spokesman, Buerkle declined an interview request from ABC News.

In an exclusive interview with ABC News before the announcement, outgoing chair Kaye said he believes consumers will be less safe under the regulation-averse Trump Administration.

Kaye, who championed causes ranging from brain injuries in youth sports to risks involving lithium-ion batteries, says consumer protection will “absolutely, categorically, yes” be harmed: “Not even a close call.”

The CPSC, an independent agency with a budget of $125 million, is tiny compared to many other federal agencies, but it has jurisdiction over pretty much every product that consumers use other than automobiles, food, medicine and guns, which are regulated elsewhere.

But the CPSC can only step in after problems occur, and it is not tasked with approving products before they are marketed.

Kaye has been a strong critic of companies that fail to comply with hazard reporting requirements and recall efforts, and he has drawn criticism from pro-business quarters.

He took the lead in several national safety dramas, including the defective Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phones as well as hover boards that were catching fire.

Kaye said he worries about companies that, when faced with injuries to consumers, would rather put a warning label on their product than go back and fix a poor design. He’s concerned that information about recalls is not reaching consumers. And he says bad players notice when civil penalties are light and figure it’s a cost of doing business.

“We have companies that say ‘safety is our number one priority’ who will fight us tooth and nail to only do a warning label change” as opposed to yanking a product and redesigning it to be safer, he said.

PHOTO: Acting chairwoman of the CPSC, Ann Marie Buerkle, is pictured while serving in the House of Representatives in Washington, Dec. 19, 2011.
Acting chairwoman of the CPSC, Ann Marie Buerkle, is pictured while serving in the House of Representatives in Washington, Dec. 19, 2011.
Bill Clark/AP Images

Buerkle, a former Republican congresswoman from upstate New York, is a registered nurse and lawyer who previously served as an assistant state attorney general in New York.

In Congress, Buerkle served on the Oversight & Government Reform, Foreign Affairs and Veterans’ Affairs committees. She served as chair of the Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health.

She is expected to be confirmed as the CPSC chairman by the Senate.

Some of her recent actions on the CPSC have been viewed as anti-regulation, such as voting against a mandatory standard for infant slings and abstaining from a vote on rulemaking for fireworks regulation.

“We have just witnessed the inauguration of our forty-fifth president,” she wrote in a January statement on the infant sling issue. “This is not the time to pile on more regulation, particularly when the benefits (if any) are minimal.”

Despite their different philosophies, Kaye made a point of describing Buerkle as collegial rather than combative: “She is a lovely human being. People want to give her a chance; I want to give her a chance.”

Consumer groups reacted cautiously to the announcement.

Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and general counsel for Consumer Federation of America, said Buerkle “really has kept her door open and has really sought out the consumer community’s input” – even though her votes haven’t always aligned with what CFA wanted, Weintraub said.

Weintraub said her organization will seek common ground “and really hope that we can find ways to save lives and fulfill the mission of the agency.”

Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids In Danger (KID), said her concern was less with the new acting chair and more with the Trump Administration in general. Cowles cited the recent executive order requiring that for each new federal regulation, two existing regulations be eliminated.

While the order does not apply to independent federal agencies like the CPSC, the tone of the order is chilling, Cowles said.

KID advocates for more stringent standards on corded window blinds and tip-prone dressers, which have killed numerous children.

“We think regulation plays a key role in keeping children safe,” Cowles said. “We would hate to go backwards on that, as well as not have the resolve to address new problems as they come up.”

Both Buerkle and Kaye were appointed by President Obama. Seats on the independent commission are, by design, given to appointees from both major political parties. Neither party can control more than three seats at a time. Democrats will still have a 3-2 majority for now, but that will change in late October when the term of commissioner Marietta Robinson, a Democrat, expires.

Kaye says his experience as a parent of two boys, now ages 12 and 7, infused every action he took as chairman.

He hopes the CPSC’s work in the area of youth sports and brain injuries – looking at whether helmet protection is adequate, for example – will continue, as well as its attention to lithium-ion battery technology, potential safety or health issues involving crumb rubber surfaces on playgrounds, and flame retardants and other chemicals in everyday household products.

Kaye says he favors catching problems before they turn into something bigger: “I hate the whole ‘close the barn door after the animals are all out’ thing.”

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