House GOP Calls for 'Common Sense' Rulemaking on Lead in Toys

In another key effort at promised “common sense” regulation reform, House Republicans are drafting legislation supporters say would modestly ease government rulemaking that protects children from lead in toys and other products, Congressional sources said Wednesday.

Republicans do not support outright repeal of the 2008 law that imposed tough new federal limits on lead in children’s products, the sources said. Rather, they are looking to give the agency that regulates them, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, more flexibility in administering new lead rules--including granting some changes the CPSC itself has requested.

Still, the move could be controversial and politically risky for Republicans, involving a highly emotional issue for parents: their children’s health and safety.  One possible change could lower the application of new lead regulations to products for children ages 6 and under, rather than 12 and under, as required now; another change could expand exemptions for CPSC testing requirements—requirements critics say could be costly and hurt many small businesses.

But the Republican effort is likely to turn into a critical test of President Obama’s new review of federal regulations to eliminate and consolidate rules that could be hindering economic growth and job creation—the goal of the Republicans’ “common sense” reform drive, which has also targeted the President’s health care and financial regulation measures.

“There are parts of (the children’s product safety law) that need to be peeled back and thrown into the trash,” said one Republican source close to the process.

A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee will review the legislation at a hearing on Thursday.

Because of Congressional criticism and the need to deal with complex technical issues, the CPSC has repeatedly delayed many of the legislation’s testing and certification requirements, most recently until  December 31 this year.

The Republican draft bill would amend the 2008 law, which Congress approved on overwhelming bipartisan votes following government recalls of lead-painted toys and components made in China, as well as Chinese-made children’s jewelry found to contain high lead levels. Lead has been linked to brain damage in children.

The legislation, signed by Republican President George W. Bush, basically banned lead in nearly all products for children.  But almost from the start, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have criticized the measure for “unintended consequences” and have proposed changes in it.

Among other things, manufacturers of smaller motorcycles, snowmobiles and four-wheel all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) for kids have complained that the law has sharply reduced their sales and use, pushing children to ride larger vehicles that are harder for them to drive and control.

“The original legislation Congress passed was meant to keep kids safe from lead content in toys,” said Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT), who comes from a state where smaller recreational vehicles are popular. “Ironically, the overreaching enforcement wound up putting kids at risk by forcing them to use larger more dangerous machines that are intended only for adults.”

Rehberg’s “Kids Just Want to Ride” Act, which he introduced last month, has 41 co-sponsors, including seven Democrats. A similar bill in the last Congress garnered 70 co-sponsors, including 24 Democrats.

“Show me an example of a 12-year-old kid licking lead off of an ATV,” said a House Republican source working on the draft bill. The source said the draft could be formally introduced in the next few weeks.

ATV manufacturers and dealers are part of a broad -- and somewhat unusual -- coalition of critics seeking changes in the legislation. The group includes small makers of handmade toys, who say the testing provisions could force some of them out of business; independent cloth diaper makers, who fear mandatory testing of fabrics, thread, snaps and elastic will do the same to them; and the American Library Association, which worries some children’s books could include materials with small amounts of lead.

Though consumer groups support minor changes to the 2008 law – for example, simpler lead testing rules for smaller handmade toy producers – they promise to fight any major revisions from Republicans.

“When the first children get sick from using a product with lead, it will point out the folly of their ‘common sense,’ “ said Nancy Cowles, executive director of Chicago-based Kids in Danger, who is testifying at Thursday’s hearing. “It’s common sense to most people not to have lead in their products.”

The chairman of the CPSC, Inez Tenenbaum, an Obama appointee, is also scheduled to testify, as is Commissioner Anne Northup. a Republican appointee.

The CPSC spokesperson declined to comment on the hearing or possible Republican proposals to change the law.  But at a hearing last year, Tenenbaum announced the agency wanted some revisions.

“From off-road vehicles to bicycles to ordinary children’s books, the Commission is seeking potential changes that would enable the agency to reasonably address how the law is applied to these and other products,” Tenenbaum told lawmakers. “Additionally, there is a consensus among the Commissioners that the agency needs to ensure that small businesses remain vibrant and competitive, while ensuring that they meet new safety requirements within the law. The Commission has been very mindful of small businesses and the crafter community in its implementation of the (legislation), and it is my hope that we will continue to do so as we promulgate new rules and regulations.”

The CPSC's lead rulemaking authority has also been under bipartisan review in the Senate, most recently at a hearing in December.