Regulatory Bunk

A minor note from Washington: The Consumer Product Safety Commission wants to regulate bunk beds. And overturn congressional restrictions on its authority. And--incidentally--throw the whole idea of nongovernmental safety standards into the ash heap.

In January, the CPSC sought to replace current voluntary standards for manufacturing bunk beds with a mandatory code. Then it ran into a little trouble along the way. In preparing its proposal, the CPSC contacted all the bunk bed manufacturers it could find (106, to be exact) and found that about 90 percent already complied with the existing voluntary standards. That's remarkably high--so high, in fact, that the CPSC's proposal for mandatory regulations may be illegal under the law that brought it into existence.

The Consumer Product Safety Act says that the commission cannot issue a new rule if there's "substantial compliance" with voluntary safety standards. Inside the Beltway, alas, 90 percent is evidently not considered "substantial." In February, the CPSC voted to ignore the evidence before it and publish a "Notice of Proposed Rulemak-ing" on bunk beds.

There's more at stake here than whether junior's bunk bed is rickety or sturdy. Such actions undermine the CPSC's "procedural integrity," writes former CPSC Commissioner Carol Dawson in the watchdog group Consumer Alert's monthly CPSC Monitor. If the commission ignores the plain language of the Consumer Product Safety Act, she warns, "it will become a party to superseding congressional intent that CPSC should give preference to voluntary standards" and will put all nongovernmental safety standards in jeopardy.

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