“Elections have consequences.” — Mick Mulvaney, then-acting-director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, explaining why he zeroed out the consumer bureau’s budget request.
When you take your child for a spin in a stroller or tuck your baby into a sleeper, you trust the stroller and sleeper are safe for children.
When you take a bite of bacon, you trust it’s safe to eat.
When you strap yourself into a seat on a Boeing airliner, you trust you’ll land safely.
This trust is based on confidence that the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection System and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have your back.
Regrettably, being a trusting American consumer today is naïve. Legal protections for consumers have been hollowed out, as in the above example involving Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Consumer rights have been sabotaged over time by a Congressional culture that views corporations, not consumers, as primary constituents. If Congress wanted barking regulatory watchdogs, we’d have them.
So: The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission received 200 consumer complaints between 2012-18 about BOB, a three-wheeled jogging stroller made by Britax Child Safety. The front wheel flew off, injuring nearly 100 children and adults.
“It was appalling,” commissioner Marietta Robinson told the Washington Post. The commission concluded BOB is unsafe and that 500,000 should be voluntarily recalled.
Britax declined, arguing that the stroller met the commission’s safety test standards. The commission then sued to force a recall, arguing that the stroller had proven unsafe in actual use.
But Britax prevailed when Republican member Ann Marie Buerkle, who became chairman in 2017, helped end the court case. She’s the only commissioner who opposed rules for portable generators to reduce carbon monoxide poisoning and the only vote against a $15.45 million penalty against a firm accused of making humidifiers prone to catch fire. Since she became chair and Republicans took control of the commission, fines and recalls have declined, the Post reports.
This month the commission did urge a recall of 4.7 million Rock ‘n’ Play infant sleepers, manufactured by Fisher-Price, which complied. This sleeper reportedly has killed 32 infants since 2011. Yet it wasn’t the commission that uncovered these deaths. It was Consumer Reports magazine.
Next month the Trump administration will shift major responsibility for ensuring pork is edible from government inspectors to pork producers. Forty percent of federal inspectors will vanish at 40 hog plants producing 90 percent of the nation’s pork. Plant employees will assume the inspectors’ responsibilities. Today hogs whiz by line workers at top speeds of 18 animals per minute; that speed will be allowed to increase by 12 percent. Government veterinarians, who intercept diseased hogs, will be among the vanished.
Moreover, the USDA has no plans to continue its testing of hogs for salmonella or E. coli at these plants, the Washington Post reports. Instead, the agency will rely on plant owners to test. But plant owners will not be required to publicly reveal test results.
Crippling the regulators
This latest version of American “fox guarding the henhouse” mis-governance is Trumpeted as smart regulatory practice. Why should taxpayers pay inspectors when the regulated companies so selflessly clamor to do it themselves? Hello?
Truth is, regulatory agencies cannot do their jobs. Here’s how that works: First, the Congressional “Starve the Beast” crowd, eager to cripple government and thus hold irresponsible corporations harmless, slash regulatory budgets. Then they innocently cite their own calculating budget cuts as justification for letting manufacturers regulate themselves.
Complaints from corporations such as Boeing about the intolerable economic losses they suffer at the hands of “excessive” government regulation are omnipresent and everlasting. For years, Boeing has argued that the FAA should turn some inspections over to Boeing itself.
With its new 737 MAX, Boeing got its wish. Unfortunately, two of them recently crashed, killing 346 people aboard Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines flights. Boeing had assured the FAA — and its airline customers — that the new 737 MAX, built in Renton, is navigationally the same as its old 737, so neither FAA inspections nor pilot navigation retraining were necessary. The FAA acquiesced.
But angry pilots say they were never told that new automated flight control system procedures had been added to compensate for a heavier engine moved forward on the fuselage.
And … ahem … economic losses? An immediate $30 billion hit to Boeing’s $101 billion market value. Pending are claims from passengers’ families, at least one Boeing shareholder, the two airlines, plus other airlines whose MAX jets remain grounded, triggering flight schedule disruptions.
Despite these impressive liabilities — plus new reports of poor production oversight of its Dreamliner — economists are upbeat on Boeing. The last man standing in commercial U.S. aircraft manufacturing, Boeing also has become a de facto arm of the Defense Department.
Regulators indulge powerful manufacturers. They allow Boeing to charge airlines extra for “optional” — but possibly critical — safety equipment Two such items, a second angle of attack indicator and a disagree light, were missing on the two doomed MAX airliners. Regulators did not require them.
American Airlines, which flies 24 737 MAX jets, bought both items. Southwest Airlines, which has 36 MAX jets, has both items. United Airlines, with 14 MAX jets, did not order either item. United pilots rely on other navigational data, United told the New York Times.
Caveat emptor, people.
Solveig Torvik, a former consumer affairs reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, lives in Winthrop.
Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.