Last year, reports of toy recalls — from such perennial favorites as Barbie to Thomas the Tank Engine — filled the news. Some products contained lead paint; others had small parts that could be swallowed by young children.
Since then, Congress has been trying to beef up the federal agency that oversees toy safety, the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The Senate is now considering a measure, sponsored by Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR), that would all but ban lead in toys and give the agency more money for testing and enforcement.
The legislative overhaul would gradually double the agency's budget and sharply increase the amount of fines that could be levied against companies for safety violations. State attorneys general would receive authority to enforce agency regulations. It also would create a database, where information about injuries, illnesses and deaths related to consumer products could be viewed.
Last fall, the House of Representatives passed what is considered a more industry-friendly bill. Pryor says the measure he has sponsored is more far-reaching.
"The trustworthiness will go up in the consumers' mind because they'll know that these products have ... been third-party tested. They'll know that they've been checked at the ports. They'll know that there are tougher standards in place. They'll know that the [Consumer Product Safety Commission] is watching over these products," Pryor says.
While the measure has bipartisan support in the Senate, there are some Republican opponents. They argue the bill will be a boon to trial lawyers — and to labor unions — because of a whistle-blowing provision. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) says the provision calling for a public database also could lead to abuses.
"It would get worse than political campaigns, of just smearing one company by a competitor. ... I'm afraid the good intentions here are clearly going to cause problems. People can get online, smear a company, and we can't do it that way," DeMint says.
The South Carolina senator has the backing of manufacturers groups that have lined up against the Senate bill. Consumer groups and some retailers, including Toys R Us, support the Senate measure, which after winning a test vote Tuesday, could win passage by the end of the week.