The fight to kill CPSC's new public database

House Republicans are trying to block next month's launch of a new database aimed at protecting consumers by giving them access to product safety complaints within weeks of their submission to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The debate goes back to the enactment of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, when Congress finally addressed a problem that had long concerned consumer advocates and stirred particular outrage among grief-stricken parents whose young children were supposedly protected by poorly designed baby gear. The problem: People sometimes suffer injuries from products months or even years after reports start flowing to manufacturers and then to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The database was designed to help careful consumers avoid risks caused by an especially cumbersome process.  As a Washington Post story this weekend describes it:

The CPSC collects reports of defective products from a wide range of sources, including consumers, health-care providers, death certificates and media accounts.

But most of that information is shielded from public view. The only way for consumers to access safety complaints is to file a public-records request with the CPSC. The agency is then required by law to consult with the manufacturer before releasing information about products, and the company can protest or sue to stop disclosure.

If the agency thinks a dangerous product should be pulled from the market, it must negotiate a recall with the manufacturer, a process that used to take years and now takes weeks or months. Meanwhile, unwitting shoppers may continue to buy the item.

The Post says that language blocking funding for the database, created for about $3 million, was added to the recent House budget resolution by Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican. Pompeo warned that the database would "drive jobs overseas," "increase the cost for manufacturers and consumers," and be "a plaintiff's bar dream."

Whatever the complaints about the new database, which I blogged about here last fall, that last point seems to be logically flawed.  As Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America has argued, the whole point of the new database is to prevent repeat injuries after a product's flaws emerge. That should mean that there will be fewer or smaller cases for the plaintiffs' bar to pursue. 

Is it possible that some injury victims will be more likely to contact lawyers if they learn, after an injury, that a manufacturer already knew about a dangerous problem? Perhaps. But if that possibility makes manufacturers a bit more careful about pre-market testing, then the new law will be working exactly as envisioned.