You almost have to admire the pure, unadulterated chutzpah. Of all the people out there to head the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the Bush administration went ahead and chose Michael Baroody, the executive vice president of the National Association of Manfacturers (NAM) — a man whose job for the last 13 years has been to characterize almost all CPSC regulations as needless meddling by cantankerous, fear-mongering bureaucrats.
Even at this late hour in the Bush administration, in the wake of a major electoral rebuke that put Congress back in Democratic hands, President Bush is sticking to his guns. What this administration needs is another corporate toady in a regulatory role, gosh darn it!
The magic of the marketplace has clearly worked for Baroody (the NAM pays him $344,607 a year to demonize regulation). So why not leave everything up to the simple laws of supply and demand? All government does is interfere with the ability of hard-working Americans to make money, right? And if the people really wanted safe products, why, they'd buy them, already! (Never mind that as lobbyist for the NAM, Baroody supported weakening guidelines to require companies report about product hazards so that consumers could make informed choices.) And if product users get hurt (like all those silly babies who keep getting injured in defective baby walkers), well, it's probably because they're stupid (unlike manufacturers, who never make a mistake).
What makes the whole thing even stranger is that Baroody has revealed that he would receive a $150,000 good-bye gift from the NAM. Since this counts as an "extraordinary payment" under federal ethics rules, it means that he will now have to recuse himself from agency matters regarding the NAM for two years. Given that the NAM is, after all, one of the most active business lobbying groups in Washington ($13.2 million in expenditures in 2006), Baroody is probably going to have to be doing a lot of recusing. Makes you wonder what kind of agency head he can be ("Nope, sorry, can't say anything about that one").
But maybe that's the point. Though, apparently, he can be involved in decisions involving NAM member companies and associations (hardly re-assuring). Add that current acting chairman and fellow commissioner Nancy A. Nord was formerly director of consumer affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — the grand-daddy of all business lobbying groups, with $72.7 million on lobbying expenditures in 2006 — and that's one heck of an agency you're running there, Baroody.
Consumer groups are understandably in an uproar about this whole Baroody business (children's safety! The fox in the henhouse!), and Sen. Bill Nelson (D.-Fla.) has put a "hold" on the nomination, meaning that the Senate leaders cannot schedule a confirmation vote, though hearings on Baroody are scheduled for tomorrow. Though reports indicate that Bush might instead just wait until the Senate breaks and then make one of those recess appointments, like the one he gave John Bolton when the Senate refused to confirm him to be U.N. Ambassador.
Like John Bolton, Baroody is somebody who is basically hostile to the very operating philosophy of the agency he is appointed to be part of. But Bolton was merely appointed to be ambassador to the U.N. Baroody has been appointed to head the whole agency. (Imagine Bolton as U.N. secretary general.) This is more than just the old saw about the fox in the henhouse. This is the fox who doesn't even think there should be a house, and in fact has been trying to tear it down, plank by plank, for the last 13 years — let the hens survive on their own in the marketplace! Houses are a waste of taxpayer money! Too bad the same vaunted market principles of popular demand and collective wisdom are in short supply these days at another house, one that happens to be painted white.
Lee Drutman, a frequent contributor, is the co-author of The People's Business: Controlling Corporations and Restoring Democracy. ( firstname.lastname@example.org)
© 2007 The Providence Journal