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CPSIA – Has Congress Ever Done This Before? Ha!

The CPSIA was crafted as a response to a then-shocking but rather inconsequential series of toy recalls in 2007/8 (very few injuries or deaths). After years of intentionally starving the CPSC of budgetary resources, Congress blamed the agency for the large scale toy recalls, leaped to the conclusion that children’s products (not just toys) weren’t “safe” anymore and proceeded to gut the law governing safety and the CPSC (the CPSA). The resulting law (the CPSIA) upended regulation of children’s product safety across an unprecedented array of industries. “Unintended consequences” popped up everywhere almost immediately. Many people claimed to be “surprised”. Given the low injury statistics across the category, the law seems like a vast overreaction.

It’s easy to overlook historical precedent during a crisis. Has Congress ever missed the boat like this before?

Okay, dumb question. But well put!

Consider the response to the Titanic tragedy in 1912. In that famous collision with an iceberg, 829 passengers and 694 crew died when the Titanic sank in the Atlantic. Perhaps you recall the movie . . . . Anyhow, it turns out that the Titanic did not carry enough lifeboats to save everyone. There were 2,228 people on board but the lifeboats only held 1,178. Don’t doubt my math but 705 survived.

Congress couldn’t stand still after the Titanic. Pinning the blame for the loss of life on the lifeboats, rather than the iceberg, Congress passed the La Follette Seamen’s Act of 1915 mandating boats and life rafts for all persons on board seafaring ships. The thinking goes that if every ship had a life boat seat for every passenger, no one would ever die in such a tragedy in the future. The public furor over the loss of the Titanic prevented consideration of the fact that most ships have no risk of colliding with icebergs because of their routes. Likewise, lifeboats are an ineffective remedy in many marine disasters because they would not be able to be launched. No matter, Congress “solved” the problem.

Notably, some members of the maritime industry resisted. In Congressional testimony, A. A. Schantz of the Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Co. noted that the rules intended for the high seas would backfire on the Great Lakes. Schantz pointed out that the light draft and ship design would make Great Lakes ships top-heavy and unseaworthy under the new law. He went so far as to predict that some Great Lakes ships would “turn turtle” if forced to operate with the heavy and useless lifeboats. His argument wasn’t just that the expense was pointless – he also noted that it was counter-productive and even dangerous.

Let’s pause for a second here. Congress rushes onto the field to “solve” a problem it doesn’t really understand. Why doesn’t Congress understand the problem despite hearings and so on? Well, among other things, Congress lacked industry-specific know-how and expertise. It is better at identifying “effect” than “cause”, and therein lies the problem. Consequently, Congress was looking for a particular answer, and tended to reject discordant data (like Mr. Schantz). When industry tried to advise Congress of the inadequacy of its solution, Congress knew better and brushed them off. After all, who has more integrity, Congress or the industry that “caused” the problem in the first place?

Can anyone guess where this is going?

On July 15, 1915, while at dock in the Chicago River, the S.S. Eastland capsized, killing 844 passengers and crew waiting to cruise on holiday to Michigan City, Indiana. The reason? The Eastland was already top-heavy and became unstable under the federally-mandated safety equipment. The ship, when it listed and sank, was described as rolling over “as though it were a whale going to take a nap”. Quite an image. Quite a tragedy. Thanks for all the help, Congress!

Not only is this story creepily similar to the CPSIA saga, it is also a reminder of the risks in the broad financial reforms currently being contemplated by this Congress. Senator Judd Gregg warned: “We shouldn’t put in place a regulatory regime that overly reacts and, as a result, significantly dampens our capacity to have the most vibrant capital and credit markets in the world.” He might as well be speaking of our friend, the CPSIA. As Jim Grant notes: “The intended consequences of government regulations are frequently less potent than the unintended ones.

As obvious as Mr. Grant’s point has become in the case of the CPSIA, the Democrats if anything have hardened their position and remain resolute that they are doing “everything they can” for us. Put another way, everything else that we want (and which has been denied us) in a CPSIA amendment is NOT forthcoming. No reason supplied except the intellectual pap that everyone wants kids to be safe – America demands it. Apparently, the Dems think they have a much better idea on how to keep kids safe than the industry.

So the Democrats are willing to risk another S.S. Eastland in the children’s product industry rather than admit they went (way) too far. The Republicans, to their undying credit, admit that the CPSIA needs severe restructuring and are working hard to bring about real change. Sadly, Waxman and his Dem co-horts are able to block the Republican effort at reform, and that’s why we are in a stalemate. Who will be the S.S. Eastland of the children’s product industry? It could be my company, could be your company, could be your school or even your child. The unintended consequences keep coming to light, and as the evidence mounts, the Democrats in Congress and their counterparts at the CPSC will held to account for the damage they have wrought. History will not forget.

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CPSIA – Has Congress Ever Done This Before? Ha!

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