Obama moves to bolster consumer product safety agency

McClatchy NewspapersMay 5, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Wednesday chose former South Carolina schools superintendent Inez Tenenbaum to head the Consumer Product Safety Commission and charged her with revitalizing a dormant federal agency.

Obama also named Robert Adler, a former commission aide who teaches business ethics and product safety at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, to one of the panel's seats, which carry seven-year terms.

"We must do more to protect the American public — especially our nation's children — from being harmed by unsafe products," Obama said. "I am confident that Inez and Bob have the commitment and expertise necessary to fill these roles and raise the standard of safety."

It was Obama's second appointment of a South Carolinian to a key post in less than a week. On Thursday, he tapped Mignon Clyburn, a daughter of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, to sit on the Federal Communications Commission.

Sen. Jim DeMint, a Greenville Republican who defeated Tenenbaum in the 2004 election, promised in a phone talk between the two to help her gain Senate confirmation.

"I told her she had my full support, and I offered to shepherd her nomination through the (Senate) Commerce Committee," DeMint said. "Inez is a very capable person, and I know she will do a great job."

Calling Tenenbaum "an outstanding choice by the president," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., predicted that she "should be easily confirmed by the Senate."

Tenenbaum and Adler declined to comment, saying the White House had directed them not to speak publicly about their appointments until their confirmation hearings.

Consumer advocates and former product-safety commissioners said Tenenbaum will face a stiff challenge in re-energizing an agency gutted by staff and funding cuts under President George W. Bush.

"The staff gets so ingrained in not wanting to make waves, over time the industry interests have eroded its whole purpose," said Stuart Statler, an Arlington, Va., consultant who served on the commissioner under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

"The agency has been eviscerated through a lack of resources, a lack of staffing and a deregulatory philosophy," Statler said.

Statler criticized the commission's acceptance of voluntary product recalls and its failure to alert Americans about unsafe goods.

"That's been one of the colossal failures of the last 20 years," he said.

Obama noted that his proposed budget contains $107 million for the agency, a 71 percent increase over its funding level two years ago.

If confirmed, Tenenbaum will oversee about 450 employees, half the staffing level of the 1980s.

Former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges said Tenenbaum helped usher in an era of transparency and accountability for South Carolina public schools as education chief from 1998 to 2006.

"She brings a reformer's mentality to the task, which is what Obama is looking for," Hodges said.

Tenenbaum, 58, co-chaired Obama's presidential campaign in South Carolina and was the first state leader to endorse him.

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