Sen. Mark Pryor's consumer product safety bill passed the Senate 79 to 13 and would've had a couple more votes if Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had been present. In today's divided Senate, 79 votes for anything is remarkable, and even more so when the bill is substantive legislation rather than political showmanship. It suggests that most of the senators are concerned about the safety of American consumers, especially children. That's nice to know. It would be ever so much nicer if we knew that the president's motives were equally honorable.
This was bipartisan legislation, of course — it had to be, to get a vote like that. Pryor was joined in sponsoring the bill by fellow Democrats Richard Durbin of Illinois and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and by Republicans Ted Stevens of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. The bill is the first comprehensive reform of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission since the agency was created in 1972, and it strengthens existing law in several ways:
It gets the manufacturers' attention by increasing civil penalties for unsafe products from $1.85 million to $10 million.
It grants more authority to state attorneys general to enforce safety standards.
It increases the staff of the CPSC.
It requires third-party testing of many products for children.
It lowers the allowed levels of lead in paint and children's products.
It offers protection to whistleblowers.
The National Association of Manufacturers opposed the bill — “Never give a consumer an even break” is NAM's motto — and so did President Bush, who has big contributors among NAM's membership. (Conversely, he's received almost no big-money gifts from injured children.) Many retailers now support the bill, primarily because they believe it will reduce the number of recalls. Recalls are expensive. And by assuring that fewer defective products reach consumers, the bill may reduce the amount of litigation over consumer injuries.
The bill has gone to a House-Senate conference committee. The House has approved its own bill, much inferior to the Senate's, but Pryor's office seems confident that the differences can be resolved acceptably and a bill approved by both houses by Memorial Day. Pryor attributes the legislation's success to his philosophy of working across party lines. That might be true, in this case. In others, excessive bipartisanship has produced less happy results. Thousands of casualties would have been avoided, and the world would be safer, if Democrats had been as willing to resist Bush's Iraqi adventure as he is to resist the protection of children.