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December 20, 2007

Import toy safety - where's Congress?

The Democrats rode back to power last November thanks to fairly unified opposition to more NAFTA style agreements. Then, this year, with the imported toy safety crisis, there's been increased calls for overhauling of our 1970s toy safety regulatory policy, premised on a reality when most toys where made domestically.

We already know how a slim minority of the House Dems and a frightening majority of the Senate Dems caved on the first issue, by helping pass Bush's NAFTA expansion to Peru. Of those running for president, only Kucinich and Paul managed to vote right, while everyone else - including Biden, Dodd, Clinton, Hunter, McCain, and Obama - didn't manage to even show up to vote. (Additionally, Tancredo voted wrong.)

Now, it seems they're poised to cave on the second as well. Last night, just a couple of minutes before close of business, the House passed 407-0 a Consumer Product Safety Commission bill that does practically nothing on import safety. (If you want to see what "something" looks like, and why the Wall Street Journal gave us some luv and called us " a hard-liner among consumer groups",  see the recommendations at the end of our latest report and after the jump.)

As far as I know, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill) was the only member to even acknowledge the shortcoming:

"I hope we can make this bill even stronger. Even with added resources authorized from the bill, a major improvement from the levels requested by President Bush, we could do better, particularly when it comes to monitoring imports. I support measures to add mandatory premarketing testing and other important things."

Now, the bill goes on to the Senate, where there's slightly stronger but still inadequate bill that has been reported out of the Senate Commerce Committee. As The Hill reported,

Industry lobbyists favored the House version, which some consumer groups said didn’t go far enough to protect consumers...

According to a report released Wednesday by the consumer group Public Citizen, however, neither the House measure nor the tougher Senate version will address one of the main culprits in the wave of toy recalls this year: trade policies that have driven domestic toy manufacturers to move their operations overseas.

'Nuff said. Another case unfortunately of siding with industry over meaningful solutions to the problems facing middle class Americans. (see our full recommendations after the jump.)

Not everyone is as shortsighted, however. As Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said at today's Pa. news conference on our report,

Sen. Casey is backing a bill in the U.S. Senate that would reform the Consumer Product Safety Commission. However he admits that is only part of the problem. He says changes need to be made when it comes to America’s trade policies because from steel to chocolate, Pennsylvania has been hit hard by companies moving overseas.

 (Disclosure: Global Trade Watch has no preference among the candidates.)

OUR RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE REPORT

To give the CPSC a fighting chance against the flood of overseas imports, the following policies, currently missing from the bills, must be adopted:

•    Creation of an Office of Overseas Compliance within the CPSC;

•    Creation of a STOP or HOT button for this office that would allow them to temporarily halt unsafe imports at the port of entry on a preliminary determination that they pose an unreasonable risk to public health or safety, without a hearing or other delays required in current law and to allow the products to be held, pending a fuller determination regarding the safety of the products and independent third party certification of their safety;

•    Increasing the amount of bond money required to be posted by importers to ensure that importers are able to pay for any product recall (currently, only bonds to cover customs fees are required);

•    Increased and adequate staff and funding for border inspection, and the assignment of a limited number of ports of entry for hazardous consumer products;

•    Requirements that foreign manufacturers consent to the jurisdiction of U.S. courts so that enforcement officers can seek penalties for violations, providing an incentive for more safety on the front end;

•    Requirements that foreign manufacturers consent to allow CPSC investigators into their plants and testing labs for inspection or investigation purposes and provide the CPSC with authority to block imports from countries and companies that do not permit inspections; and

•    New authority for CPSC to block/penalize bonding agents and importers who are repeat offenders.

Finally, Congress must alter various provisions of U.S. trade agreements, including the WTO’s TBT agreement, whose rules currently limit border inspection and the safety standards that signatory countries can require of imported goods. Moreover, NAFTA and its various expansions to countries in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East need to be renegotiated to remove the investor-state system that incentivizes corporations to offshore production and provides a private right of action against domestic safety policies.

Absent such changes in existing trade agreements and rejection of future agreements with such limits, any improvements Congress may make to U.S. policy regarding import safety could be exposed to challenge as “non-tariff trade barriers” before trade tribunals. With the exception of the recent WTO ruling against the U.S. Internet gambling ban, both Democratic and Republican administrations have systematically worked to implement such trade tribunal rulings, including a NAFTA order to allow access to all U.S. roads for Mexico-domiciled trucks, and WTO orders to weaken Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act rules, among other examples. This readiness to acquiesce to trade agreement panels’ orders to weaken our domestic public interest laws must stop.

In the past, most American anxiety about trade agreements has focused on jobs, wages and offshoring. The imported toys, product and food safety crisis has made vividly clear to many Americans that our current trade agreements and policies pose much broader threats to their safety and health – and the ability of their government to act in their interest. Changes to our current trade agreements and policies are needed to ensure that policies aimed at countering the import safety crisis are not undermined. More generally, such changes are needed to ensure public support for trade is not thoroughly undermined by our current toxic trade model.

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