WASHINGTON — After a year of toy recalls that shook public confidence in product safety, Senate Democrats and influential industry groups are facing off over how the government regulates everything from baby cribs to all-terrain vehicles.Backed by consumer advocates, lawmakers are pushing to give the public broad access to information about potentially dangerous products and to increase penalties for companies that make or sell harmful products.But the campaign has run into fierce opposition from manufacturers and retailers, which have succeeded for decades in limiting regulation of consumer goods.Industry lobbyists have descended on Capitol Hill to head off tougher rules they say will trigger more lawsuits and slow the removal of dangerous products from the marketplace.Their efforts paid off late last year in the House, where industry groups thwarted a major overhaul of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The Bush administration has also signaled opposition to giving the public more information and to expanding enforcement.
As debate shifts to the Senate this week, the battle is shaping up as a test of how much influence industry groups still wield, even with their traditional Republican allies now in the minority.
“This is a big one for us,” said Stephanie Lester, a lobbyist for the Retail Industry Leaders Assn. The association is part of a sprawling coalition, assembled by the National Assn. of Manufacturers, that for more than two decades has effectively shaped the agency charged with overseeing its members.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission is less than half the size it was at its peak in the late 1970s, before the manufacturers coalition was created. It has fewer enforcement tools than other regulatory agencies, such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Food and Drug Administration. And it is effectively barred from publicizing information about potentially harmful products without authorization from manufacturers.
“The [manufacturers] coalition is extraordinarily powerful,” said Michael Lemov, senior legislative counsel for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader. Lemov helped write the legislation that created the consumer commission nearly 40 years ago.
“They are up on Capitol Hill all the time, year after year,” he said. “Consumer groups can’t match that.”
The National Assn. of Manufacturers routinely spends millions on lobbying, according to data compiled by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. In 2006, the association’s $13.2-million lobbying tab placed it 16th on the list of Washington’s biggest spenders on lobbying.
But record toy recalls last year — and the arrival of a Democratic Congress — seemed to signal a new political landscape in Washington.
President Bush in May was forced to abandon his attempt to put Michael E. Baroody, executive vice president of the manufacturers association, at the head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
And when El Segundo-based Mattel and other companies began recalling toys that contained elevated levels of lead, lawmakers lined up to pledge new support for the long-neglected agency.
The National Assn. of Manufacturers and other industry groups mobilized as well.
The manufacturers association supported increased funding for the consumer agency, which industry officials said would help them cooperate with regulators to keep unsafe products out of the marketplace. “Our feeling is that the system, while definitely under-resourced, is one that promotes safety,” said Rosario Palmieri, vice president for regulatory policy for the National Assn. of Manufacturers.
But the coalition opposed proposals to change the essentially voluntary system of enforcement. Unlike other agencies, the Consumer Product Safety Commission risks lawsuits from companies if it shares any data about potentially harmful products with the public before the agency reaches an agreement with the manufacturer.
Consumer groups and their allies on Capitol Hill argue that the public should be able to review data on potentially dangerous products before the consumer agency and manufacturers have decided whether a full recall is warranted. “The idea is, the more information, the better,” said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), a leading advocate for stronger regulation. “When you are talking about public safety, if anything you err on the side of more information.”
Consumer advocates envision an online database that consumers could use to report problems with a product and review reports from others. Many advocates also would like to require companies to report data that they collect about the safety of their products.
Consumer advocates have pushed for tougher enforcement tools for federal and state authorities, including raising the maximum penalty for violations to $100 million — from $1.8 million — and giving state attorneys general more power to enforce federal product safety laws.
And they want new whistle-blower protections for employees who report violations.
For months, industry groups pounded away at these proposals, saying that unfiltered information would be confusing for consumers and that such changes would open the system to more lawsuits. Litigation, they said, would slow the recall of harmful products and have a chilling effect on job creation.
“We’re a big economic driver in the United States,” said Jason D. Oxman, a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Assn., a part of the manufacturers coalition whose members employ 4.4 million people in America, according to the organization.
Industry groups found allies on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which developed consumer agency legislation last year. Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), who heads the subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection, were determined to pass a bill with broad bipartisan support.
When several lawmakers pushed to include some of the tougher provisions, including a publicly accessible database, they were defeated.
The unanimously passed House bill in the end boosted funding for the agency to $100 million — up from $80 million this year — and included a handful of other changes that had the blessing of industry, including a phased-in ban on lead in children’s products.
It required only a study on how a database would work and contained hardly any of the new enforcement mechanisms that consumer groups wanted, though most groups endorsed the bill as better than nothing.
“We have definitely been listened to,” said Palmieri of the manufacturers association.
As debate has shifted to the Senate, Pryor and other senior Democrats have won GOP support for some tougher provisions.
Several companies, including Toys R Us, also back Pryor’s legislation.
The Senate bill would require the Consumer Product Safety Commission to create a database where consumers, government agencies and healthcare providers could post complaints, though it would not require companies to contribute. It would boost penalties as high as $20 million and give states some new powers to enforce federal product safety laws.
“This is a major step forward,” said David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, which has been monitoring the legislation.
But, backed by some Republicans and the White House, the manufacturers coalition is still fighting several provisions, fueling concern among consumer groups that when lawmakers in the House and Senate work out a compromise, industry groups will figure out a way to prevail again.
“They’ve worked very hard at this for a very long time,” Arkush said.
“These are the kinds of issues that they are more likely to win in back rooms.”