Last year, in response to the several successive lead scares resulting from contaminated Chinese products, Congress pushed through the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, a 63-page document that, among other things, would lay the ground rules for ensuring that the parents of America never have to fear lead poisoning from children's toys.
Writing for Forbes, Richard Epstein notes that the passage of the bill gained bipartisan support, because what politician would ever want to be on record as voting against "safety" and "lead posioning." In fact, it passed the Senate 89 to three and the House by 424 to one—Ron Paul was the sole vote of dissent in the latter. Epstein writes:
Instead of targeting the known sources of lead contamination, this ill-conceived statute extended coverage to the max by solemnly requiring third-party testing and certification, using only the best in scientific techniques, for all children's products. Just to be on the safe side, these were defined generously to include all products that are "primarily" intended for children 12 years or age and under. Congress gave the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) six months to prepare the needed regulations.
Unfortunately, this exercise in statutory aggrandizement shows that it is far easier for Congress to set public goals than for agencies to implement them. "Primarily" is a necessary weasel word. Remove it, and all products need testing because some infant might just suck on a wet paint brush. But determining which products are primarily directed to children requires a detailed examination of market structure that no small business is able to undertake.
So, when it came to implementing the rules, people suddenly realized that organizations such as Goodwill would have to either prove that all of its second-hand children's products—toys and clothing—were free of lead, or get rid of them. We realized that libraries would have to pay to test all their books or dump their children's collections. Obviously, second-hand clothing stores and community libraries could never afford such advanced testing. So then, they would have to destroy everything!
Did anyone honestly believe that libraries would have been forced to destroy all their copies of Curious George because of a failure to comply with overzealous safety regulations pushed through by politicians too scared to say no? No one could have seriously expected this to come to pass. And of course, it didn't. So we found many of the same scaredy-cat politicians who passed this act now lining up at the microphones to decry its enforcement. Of course, they were joined by a host of newcomers who saw a chance to snatch up some healthy PR and prove themselves true representatives of the people.
Enter, Rep. Chris Lee. From his office, released yesterday:
The Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a one-year stay of enforcement for testing and certification requirements under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act after a weeks-long effort on the part of Congressman Lee to protect local libraries. On January 9, Congressman Lee brought the issue up on behalf of local libraries in a phone conversation with the Commission’s acting chairman, Nancy A. Nord. When the Commission did not clarify whether local libraries would receive a reprieve, Congressman Lee joined with the American Library Association early last week to help persuade the Commission to protect library collections.
“I am pleased to see that the Commission has recognized the need to re-evaluate regulations that would potentially force libraries to destroy their children’s book collections,” Congressman Lee said. “Though this is good news, our libraries may still be susceptible to these burdensome regulations in one year’s time. Now the Congress and the Commission must go back to the drawing board and work together to protect children’s book collections in Western New York and around the country.”
“Libraries now have a little room to breathe, but this announcement is not an end to this problem,” Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association. “Since we know children’s books are safe, libraries are still asking to be exempt from regulation under this law. We appreciate Congressman Lee’s continued efforts on behalf of our libraries.”
Lee deserves some credit, here, for sure. We should be glad. He did the right thing. He spoke out against the enforcement of this silly act. But he's leaning a little too hard on the savior button here, and isn't that what got us in this mess to begin with. Let's instead take this chance to step back and keep ourselves—read: keep our politicians—from getting too fired up on their sense of self-worth and wind up overreacting again. This isn't about you, Chris Lee, or any of your colleagues. If we're to be completely honest, this isn't about the libraries either. As Walter Olson writes for Forbes, the act was passed "in a frenzy of self-congratulation following last year's overblown panic over Chinese toys with lead paint." Let's not bury it in the same spirit. Let's take our time this time. Olson continues:
The failure here runs deeper. This was not some enactment slipped through in the dead of night: It was one of the most highly publicized pieces of legislation to pass Congress last year.
And yet now it appears precious few lawmakers took the time to check what was in the bill, while precious few in the press (which ran countless let's-pass-a-law articles) cared to raise even the most basic questions about what the law was going to require.
Yes, something's being exposed as systematically defective here. But it's not the contents of our kids' toy chests. It's the way we make public policy.
I couldn't agree more. So shouldn't this be a chance to learn a lesson? When we get "back to the drawing board," as Lee urges, let's make sure everyone is watching the paper instead of ignorantly trumpeting their triumph at the nearest microphone as they had done in round one. Let's not fool ourselves into conflating the two situations here. We need to rectify a big fat policy blunder. Curious George and friends will be fine. We've got some new faces in their now, like you, Chris Lee, so please: do the right thing.