President Obama has nominated South Carolina lawyer and former schools commissioner Inez Moore Tenenbaum to chair the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and former CPSC staffer/academic Robert Adler as a member of the commission (White House press release). The appointments are likely to bring important implications for CPSIA reform, since they would double the number of active CPSC commissioners (joining Republican Nancy Nord and Democrat Thomas Moore) and since many Democrats on Capitol Hill have refused to work with Nord, the current acting chair. Unfortunately, the new appointments carry with them some definite elements of bad news for the cause of CPSIA reform, and it takes some fairly strenuous guesswork and supposition to see this bad news as balanced by any good news.
- Start with the relatively good (or at least neutral) news. Inez Tenenbaum, the designated chair, is an important political ally of President Obama’s (background: Howard Fineman, Newsweek) best known for her work on a different subject, education (and in fact evidently tossed the CPSC as a consolation prize for not getting the job she wanted, the Cabinet post of Secretary of Education). An optimistic view would be that because Tenenbaum has not spent the past year digging into an entrenched defense of CPSIA and all its works, she might be free to rethink the issue, developing more nuanced or moderate positions that acknowledge the views of CPSC career staff on the law’s various defects. And because of her background as an education advocate, she might be particularly sympathetic to the pleas of libraries and schools harmed by the law. That’s the optimistic theory, anyway.
- Let’s be frank: for virtually any Democratic administration, an overriding political consideration in staffing the CPSC is finding someone acceptable to the plaintiff’s personal injury bar, the one anchor-tenant Democratic constituency that cares intensely about the agency’s work. Tenenbaum appears to pass this test: in her 2004 Senate campaign, she drew substantial contributions from two of the South’s best-known injury law firms, Motley Rice ($17,250) and Beasley Allen ($19,000). Incidentally, Tenenbaum lost that 2004 race to none other than Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, who emerged in recent months as the sponsor of the most serious and far-reaching bill to reform CPSIA. Most likely it’s sheer coincidence, but let’s hope DeMint wasn’t relying on a sympathetic ear from CPSC for his legislation.
- Obama also announced that he is calling for an expansion of the CPSC from three to five seats, and that he intends to nominate for one of the new seats veteran Washington consumer-safety hand (and now University of North Carolina professor) Robert Adler, who participated in the CPSC transition effort on behalf of the incoming Obama-Biden team. Few figures are more closely identified than Adler with the cluster of Washington institutions and personalities that brought us CPSIA: after serving in a staff capacity at CPSC for many years he joined the staff of none other than Rep. Henry Waxman, where his work included overseeing the agency. As the White House press release also notes, Adler “has been elected six times to the board of directors of Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine”; in its blind and clueless advocacy of a maximally onerous CPSIA, Consumers Union has taken a back seat only to Public Citizen and PIRG. Another online source describes Adler as a “longtime colleague” of Pamela Gilbert, a key figure both in the litigation lobby (Public Citizen, PIRG, trial lawyer lobbying) and in CPSC affairs.
- Among early press coverage, Bloomberg News is out with a reasonably fact-filled account that at least acknowledges in a passing sentence the continuing outcry over CPSIA’s calamitous effects on producers and sellers. That contrasts with the short, lame account in the New York Times, and the longer, much-worse-than-lame account in the L.A. Times, from which you’d think the only controversial thing about the agency was that it was too lenient on the regulated. You do have to wonder whether L.A. Times reporter Mark Silva even reads the stories in his own paper.
More: Deputy Headmistress has been thinking along very similar lines. And Sen. DeMint has kind words for nominee Tenenbaum.
Public domain image courtesy ChildrensLibrary.org: Walter Crane, illustrator, The Baby’s Aesop (1887).