George Bush is busy inventing the wheel. And what a fine group he has assembled to help him accomplish the task. It is safe to say that all the designers he is employing have some notion of what a wheel should look like although it is unlikely any of them has any first hand experience in designing such a device.
The “wheel” that Mr. Bush hopes to leave behind as part of his not inconsiderable legacy is developing a way to insure that foodstuffs and other products imported into the United States are safe. Mr. Bush believes the wheel is needed because he has been told that many products and some produce sold in this country are not from here. He has learned that imports from foreign countries are not subject to the rigorous controls imposed on domestic produce and products. Mr. Bush was no doubt incredulous at first, but persuaded when his instructors gave him examples of the problem.
They told him about the 1.5 million Fisher Price toys painted with lead paint that were made in China and sold in the United States. They told him about the pet food from China contaminated with melamine, a chemical used in plastics, fertilizers and flame-retardants. They told him about the Chinese toothpaste manufacturer which, modeling itself after a few Austrian wine producers (who in 1985 added a touch of antifreeze to their wines in an unsuccessful bid to enhance the flavor) added the same substance, diethylene glycol, to toothpaste in order to help it stay moist. The most interesting thing they told him about was that in China carbon monoxide has been used on decomposed fish to make them look fresh.
Learning of these events, Mr. Bush acted with his customary mindless swiftness. He created a panel of cabinet officials by Executive Order, and baptized them the “Interagency Working Group on Import Safety.” The experts on the panel, all of whom eat food and brush their teeth, and many of whom have pets and children, include Condoleeza Rice, Michael Chertoff, Alberto R. Gonzales, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns (who may actually know something about the subject), Carlos Gutierrez, Commerce Secretary and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. The group is chaired by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Michael Leavitt. Other members will be added by Mr. Leavitt. The president wants recommendations on how to deal with this problem within 60 days unless its chairman decides it needs more time.
What Mr. Bush did not know, and no one told him, is that there are two agencies already doing what the Interagency Group has been asked to do-the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (C.P.S.C.) C.P.S.C. has a mission statement that says its mission is “to protect the public from the unreasonable risk of injury or death from 15,000 types of consumer products in and around the home.” The F.D.A.’s Mission Statement says the agency is
“responsible for protecting the public health by assuring the safety, efficacy, and security of . . . our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation.” It is also responsible for advancing the public health by helping to speed innovations that make . . . foods more effective, safer, and more affordable. . . .”
Without wanting to quibble over how the agency plans to make food more “effective” its mission (and the C.P.S.C.’s mission) is remarkably similar to the charge given the Interagency Working Group. The Group’s Mission is to identify actions and appropriate steps that can be pursued, within existing resources
“to promote the safety of imported products. . . .” and to review or assess current procedures aimed at ensuring the safety of products exported to the U.S. and identify the safety of imported products.”
The F.D.A. and the C.P.S.C. are shrinking agencies. In hearings before the House Oversight Committee, William Hubbard, a former top official at the F.D.A., said that the F.D.A. has lost 200 food scientists and 700 field inspectors over the preceding five years while in that same period imports of food have almost doubled. The C.P.S.C. full time staff is now half of what it was in 1980 and Thomas Moore, a veteran Commissioner says it may soon be at a point where it cannot protect the public.
The two agencies have been run by professionals whose work is being hamstrung by budget cuts imposed by an administration that understands the peril of having people who are actually knowledgeable about something, make decisions. The professionals are being replaced by a committee consisting of amateurs who will make decisions on matters about which they know nothing about. That’s one way to govern. There’s probably another.
CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a laywer in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at: Brauchli.firstname.lastname@example.org