Who would want to poison our children?

A good rule of thumb is that when everyone in Washington agrees on something it’s either inane or you better hide your wallet. Of course, there’s nothing that will rally together Congress faster than a law written “for the children”. So it should come as no surprise that the innocuously named Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) proposed following the lead-paint-in-childrens’-toys-from-China scare last year received almost unanimous support. It passed by a vote of 89-3 in the Senate and 424-1 in the House.

What should also come as no surprise are the unintended consequences CPSIA will have on everyone from toy manufacturers to public libraries:

CPSIA is now shaping up as a calamity for businesses and an epic failure of regulation, threatening to wipe out tens of thousands of small makers of children’s items from coast to coast, and taking a particular toll on the handcrafted and creative, the small-production-run and sideline at-home business, not to mention struggling retailers. How could this have happened?

Congress passed CPSIA in a frenzy of self-congratulation following last year’s overblown panic over Chinese toys with lead paint. Washington’s consumer and environmentalist lobbies used the occasion to tack on some other long-sought legislative goals, including a ban on phthalates used to soften plastic.

The law’s provisions were billed as stringent, something applauded by high-minded commentators as a way to force the Mattels and Fisher-Prices of the world to keep more careful watch on the supply chains of their Chinese factories.

The first thing to note is that we’re not just talking about toys here. With few exceptions, the law covers all products intended primarily for children under 12. That includes clothing, fabric and textile goods of all kinds: hats, shoes, diapers, hair bands, sports pennants, Scouting patches, local school-logo gear and so on.

And paper goods: books, flash cards, board games, baseball cards, kits for home schoolers, party supplies and the like. And sporting equipment, outdoor gear, bikes, backpacks and telescopes. And furnishings for kids’ rooms.

And videogame cartridges and audio books. And specialized assistive and therapeutic gear used by disabled and autistic kids.Any product intended for children is now subject to burdensome and expensive testing. Not just the finished product, but every component of each product.

For a given hand-knitted sweater, for example, one might have to pay not just, say, $150 for the first test, but added-on charges for each component beyond the first: a button or snap, yarn of a second color, a care label, maybe a ribbon or stitching–with each color of stitching thread having to be tested separately.

Suddenly the bill is more like $1,000–and that’s just to test the one style and size. The same sweater in a larger size, or with a different button or clasp, would need a new round of tests–not just on the button or clasp, but on the whole garment.But wait, it gets even better.

Since the law does not exempt books, children’s’ sections at libraries and bookstores will, at minimum, face price hikes on newly acquired titles and, at worse, may have to rethink older holdings.

After all, no one has the slightest idea how many future violations lie hidden in the stacks and few want to play a guessing game about how seriously officialdom will view illegality. “Either they take all the children’s books off the shelves,” Associate Executive Director Emily Sheketoff of the American Library Association told the Boston Phoenix, “or they ban children from the library.”Yet another classic case of razing the house because someone saw a cockroach. The blame here is obviously bi-partisan and this abomination was signed into law by President Bush. Clearly, no politician (other than Ron Paul) will stand up when they might be shouted down as wanting to poison the children. But either large numbers of Congress-critters supported this law without fully reading and understanding its impact or their intention all along was to saddle makers of kids goods with an exasperating suite of regulations that will yield no significant improvement on childrens health.

This should serve as a cautionary tale now that Washington is preparing to quickly ram-rod through legislation addressing lingering concerns over the economy, climate, union organizing rules, energy, and other issues that affect your pocket book every day. The law of unintended consequences often cuts hard and once an odious policy is in place there will be very little enthusiasm for Congress and the President to admit they made a mistake.

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