Bailout may delay funds for consumer safety law

WASHINGTON — The proposed rescue of the financial system is holding up an infusion of funds that federal safety regulators say they need to implement a sweeping new consumer product safety law.

Although Congress has yet to give the bailout its blessing, lawmakers are already bracing for its impact on the federal budget and casting a cold eye on a request that has support from key members.

Officials from the Consumer Product Safety Commission found out this week that they would not be getting an additional $30 million to help them carry out their new mandates.

Congress passed the final version of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act this summer with strong bipartisan support, and President Bush signed it into law on Aug. 14.

The measure, the most significant overhaul of the nation's product safety system in a generation, bolsters the power the CPSC and authorizes tens of millions of dollars in new funds. It also requires the CPSC to produce a slew of new regulations as well as guidance for manufacturers on how to comply with various aspects of the law by a series of deadlines, many of which fall within the next 11 months.

The issues the agency has to sort out involve highly technical but important details such as what methods can be used to test for lead, what components get tested and what information should be included in a new mandatory tracking label.

Two other new laws also order the agency to enforce a rule that portable gas cans must have child safety caps and to distribute $2 million in grants to encourage states to adopt certain pool and spa safety regulations.

Completing these tasks on time requires an additional $30 million, CPSC officials say, and not next year, but now.

"Without more funding, the agency can't do everything in its operating plan and carry out the requirements of the (new) laws," CPSC spokeswoman Julie Vallese said. Without an immediate cash infusion, she said, CPSC officials will be forced to "shift resources from ongoing safety projects to meet the deadlines imposed by Congress."

When acting CPSC chairwoman Nancy Nord and fellow commissioner Thomas Moore sent their $30 million request to Congress on Aug. 28, they had reason to be hopeful. Congress has been willing to give the CPSC money since last year's string of recalls of lead-tainted toys, which some lawmakers blamed on a CPSC weakened by years of budget cuts.

Last year, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who chairs a Senate subcommittee that oversees funding for the CPSC, secured a 28 percent boost in the CPSC's budget for fiscal year 2008, bringing it to $80 million. The new product safety improvement act authorizes further yearly budget increases, with an initial jump to $118 million starting in 2010.

Nord and Moore's request had the backing of House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell, D-Mich., and Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., chairman of a consumer protection subcommittee, according to committee spokeswoman Jodi Seth. At a Sept. 4 public meeting on the new law, CPSC officials sounded optimistic that Congress would approve the additional funds. The most likely scenario entailed getting it added to a continuing resolution — stopgap legislation that keeps the government running for a few months until lawmakers finish work on funding bills for the following year. Congress is expected to pass one before leaving town this month.

Then came the federal takeovers of mortgage-finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and insurance giant American International Group, followed by the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Monday's unveiling of the $700 billion bailout plan.

CPSC officials this week saw that the continuing resolution headed for the House floor contained no additional money for the agency.

The pool and spa safety grant program is one of initiatives that is likely to be put on hold until funding for fiscal year 2009 is finalized, an outcome that has angered some consumer advocates.

"It is unbelievable the government is contemplating pouring billions into a failed financial infrastructure while not adding millions to protect consumers," said Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America.

Durbin said the soonest that lawmakers could consider the CPSC's request is early next year.

"I am going to do everything I can to get every dollar into that agency," he said. In the meantime, "it is going to be a stretch and tough for them. They're going to have to do the best they can."

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