Do Presidential Candidates Care About Consumer Issues?

Most Presidential candidates could not care less about consumer protection, but several have taken a stand on one of the sexier consumer issues: toy safety. Let’s break down where they stand.

For starters, consumer rights attorney and friend of the blog Sam Glover looked to see which candidates supported bills on our list of noteworthy legislation from the 110th Congress.

Dennis Kucinich co-sponsored the Arbitration Fairness Act and the College Cost Reduction and Access Act. John McCain co-sponsored the Internet Tax Freedom Act. Barack Obama co-sponsored the Industrial Bank Holding Company Act (whatever that is). And Hillary Clinton co-sponsored the Do-Not-Call Improvement Act. If co-sponsoring is an expression of a legislator’s interest in and desire to be identified with a particular piece of legislation, then this is a pretty disinterested showing, although Kucinich does seem to have a passing interest.

Only the College Cost Reduction and Access Act actually got a roll-call vote in both chambers, and the candidates apparently voted the party line, assuming Democrats favored the act and the Republicans opposed it.

Some legislators are cosponsor whores, willing to do anything to get their name on moving legislation, but Presidential candidates pick their legislation carefully, often preferring to write their own bills—which usually go nowhere but look good on paper.

Since not all Presidential candidates are sitting legislators, we decided to look at their websites to see who cares about toy safety, one of the more press-worthy consumer issues of 2007.

Candidate’s websites are a good barometer of interest. Unlike debates or impromptu Q&A sessions, candidates have exclusive control over the issues discussed on their sites. Staffers don’t add material without approval, and the positions presented are the idealized version of what the candidate would enact into policy, if elected.

Our methodology was simple. We attacked each website with our google ninja skills. Here is what we uncovered.

Democrats

Barack Obama: Obama went so far as to call for a complete ban on lead-ridden toys from China, though his aides quickly corrected his statement, but not before Beijing could lambast his plan as “unobjective, unreasonable and unfair.”

In 2005, Obama introduced the Lead-Free Toys Act, which would require the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban children’s products containing more than a trace amount of lead. Following news reports that millions of Chinese-made toys were being recalled because of lead paint, he has also directly pressured toy manufacturers and Bush administration officials to do a better job protecting American children from the threat of imported toys, especially those manufactured in China.

As President, Obama will enact a plan to protect Americans from unsafe products. In addition to banning lead-tainted toys and increasing fines for companies that fail to disclose known safety hazards with their products, Obama will:

  • Double the funding for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and make sure it has the inspectors it needs to ensure that the goods we’re buying are safe.
  • Expand the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s regulatory powers, and help the agency respond quickly and efficiently when it’s alerted to a problem.
  • Increase fines for companies that fail to disclose known safety hazards with the products they’re making.
  • Appoint a chairman with a proven record of standing up for consumer safety.

Hillary Clinton: Hillary agrees that the CPSC needs to be improved, but also endorses the industry’s sham proposal for third-party testing.

“In America in 2007, the products Americans buy should be safe and secure. As President, I would:
  • Immediately require independent third-party testing for at-risk imported toys to ensure they are safe before they can be put on our shelves and sold.
  • Dramatically increase the number of product inspectors and deploy them as part of a strategy to meet the threat posed by imported toys.
  • Establish a complete ban on lead in children’s products.
  • Increase and enforce both civil and criminal penalties for violators.
  • Require selected companies to pay a bond pending completion of third party testing to protect consumers and taxpayers from fly-by-night foreign importers.
  • Improve our system of toy recalls so that parents get swift notification and companies face swift sanctions if they don’t remove recalled products from their shelves.”

John Edwards: Populist ex-Senator John Edwards takes a little from both Obama and Clinton.

Ban Lead in Children’s Products: The ingestion of any amount of lead is harmful. As president, Edwards will ask the CPSC to prohibit lead at any level above the most minute trace amounts in children’s products including toys and jewelry. [CU, 2007; Best, 2007; Best, 2004]

Require Independent Testing: Edwards will require manufacturers and private-label resellers to certify that the children’s products they sell have been tested to meet U.S. safety standards. Testing must be conducted by an independent third-party organization accredited by CPSC, and products that have not have been certified should be banned.

Stop Risky Products at the Border: Until effective independent testing of all toys is in place, Edwards will give the Customs Service and the CPSC the authority to detain shipments of toys containing paint or magnets without independent safety certification – just like the Food and Drug Administration temporarily detained Chinese seafood – and hold them until testing of a random sample demonstrates that they are safe.

Provide the CPSC with the Power and Resources it Needs: To deter even large companies from marketing dangerous products, Edwards will increase the maximum civil fine to $100 million. He will give CPSC authority to act far more quickly, rather than giving manufacturers 30 days notice while children’s safety is at stake. Finally, he will double resources for the CPSC.

All the Democrats agree: lead is bad and the CPSC is woefully underfunded. Are there any meaningful differences between the proposals?

No.

Republicans

Things became more difficult here. We don’t want to say Republicans don’t care about toy safety, but if their websites are any indication, the Republican Presidential candidates don’t think the federal government has any responsibility for toy safety. Of the six potentially viable Republicans candidates, we found only one passing mention addressing toy safety.

Mike Huckabee: During an in-depth three paragraph look at our relationship with China, Governor Huckabee acknowledged that our children’s toys are “not safe.”

Looking forward we’ve got to do a better job to balance our trade relationships, especially with China. We have not challenged them enough on intellectual property rights Nor have we challenged them enough on the regulatory front. That’s why we see products coming into this country, particularly food, whether it’s ours or our pets that is not safe. Even our children’s toys have recently been recalled because they’re not safe. The result is what I think ought to be considered an alarm sounding off that something isn’t quite right in what now is becoming a very unbalanced relationship, specifically with the Chinese.

That’s it. Romney, Thompson, and Giuliani all focus on China’s growing economic dominance without addressing the quality of products coming from the east.

We can infer Ron Paul’s position because he is one of the few candidates with a clearly defined political ideology. A quick glance at Article 1 Section 8 doesn’t seem to mention toys, lead, or the CPSC. Paul would likely scrap the Consumer Product Safety Commission and let the market fix the industry’s defective toy addiction.

Senator John McCain’s failure to mention toy safety is especially egregious. The Senator chaired the powerful Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that handles most consumer issues for six years, but apparently doesn’t think consumer protection should be part of his Presidential campaign.

The Bush Administration has trashed the CPSC. Congress put the ailing agency on life support with plans to infuse staffers and funds, but it will take a renewed commitment from the next Administration to empower the agency to keep Americans safe. Toy safety is just one of many consumer issues the next President will face. Candidates who are not willing to mention toy safety during the campaign are sending a clear signal that neither the CPSC nor consumer protections will matter much in their Administrations.

Presidential candidates’ votes on 2007 consumer legislation [Consumer Law & Policy Blog]
(Photo: Getty)