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Corporate wrongdoing doesn’t always resemble the stories that tend to make headlines—the dramatic corruption scandals, bald-faced lies, and egregious instances of fraud. Sometimes, as we at Revolving Door Project strive to highlight, life-threatening corporate actions are enabled by quiet bureaucratic processes and decisions, ushered along by captured political appointees who refuse to hold profit-hungry corporations accountable.
One notable example is the sale of the surprisingly deadly Boppy Newborn Lounger, a particular model of baby pillow. As an NBC News investigative report revealed last month, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a recall for this product after it was linked to the deaths of eight newborns.
In recognition of this issue, and a longer history of lounger cushions causing infant deaths, the CPSC tried to go further, and regulate the category of baby lounger products more broadly. Under federal law, before issuing a rule that would regulate a category of products, the CSPC must go through a process that involves “gathering and analyzing relevant data, researching incident reports, and justifying the need for regulation,” before putting the rule to a Commission vote.
However, NBC’s investigation found the two Republican commissioners, Peter Feldman and Dana Baiocco, “scrapped that more comprehensive action, approving an annual operating plan that removed a proposal for regulating infant pillows.” In a statement, Feldman argued that the CPSC would be moving too swiftly by issuing this regulation, citing concerns about legal challenges to the rules—a rhetorical move we’ve roundly criticized as being applied to pretty much anything reluctant regulators feel like applying it to, especially in recent months.
Even more infuriatingly, these Republican commissioners would not have had the majority needed to block the proposed regulation were it not for Senate Republicans’ work obstructing President Biden’s three Democratic nominees for the CPSC, which had two vacant seats at the time. The sole Democratic commissioner at the time, Robert Adler, called the delay of this regulation “extremely improper.”
In their investigation, NBC News linked the deaths of at least 26 infants to baby loungers between December 2015 and September 2021, which they state is “almost certainly an undercount […] as autopsies do not always mention specific consumer products.” This number is over twice as high as the number the CPSC has cited publicly in warnings about the baby loungers, given NBC News’ rigorous investigative methodology. Their team reviewed a wide range of data sources, including autopsy reports, lawsuits, interviews with attorneys, and court records, in addition to CSPC databases.
While CPSC has stated that more comprehensive standards regulating baby lounger products should be released by the end of 2023, these dangerous products are still sold and circulated through resale platforms like Facebook Marketplace. Companies, including Boppy and DockATot, a brand with similar products, continue to actively market and sell many models of baby loungers, often blaming parents for using products incorrectly when deaths occur, rather than taking accountability for misleading marketing and accident-prone designs.
This baby lounger incident—in which Republican commissioners’ pandering to corporate interests contributed to the deaths of numerous infants—perfectly illustrates several key points from our broader corporate crackdown agenda. First, that independent agencies have significant power to advance a progressive agenda (including literally saving the lives of infants) and that these executive authorities should be wielded intentionally by the Biden administration and its appointees. And second, that by aligning his messaging more regularly with calls for corporate accountability, Biden could support progressive forces within these agencies, while scoring easy political points to gain support from a broader base of voters.
Independent Agencies Can Save Lives, But Only If We Empower Them
The CPSC is an independent agency of the US government, established in 1972 “to protect the public against unreasonable risks of injury associated with consumer products” (Consumer Product Safety Act). As an independent agency, the CPSC is constitutionally part of the executive branch, but has independence protections that go beyond those of federal agencies whose top officials serve at the pleasure of the president—the CPSC commissioner can only be removed by the President for “neglect of duty or malfeasance in office” (CRS). Further, only three of the five CPSC commissioners appointed by the president (subject to congressional approval) can be of the same political party.
We’ve pointed out before that independent agencies can have an outsized impact on the federal government’s focus areas and priorities. They are the main arm of the federal government charged with implementing the executive branch’s priorities in policy form. These agencies’—you guessed it—independence from direct presidential control insulates them somewhat from shorter term political pressures and maneuvering, and in the case of statutorily grounded agencies like the CPSC, their authority gives them clear-cut mandates to serve the public interest.
Under progressive leadership, independent agencies can push through important political goals in the areas of climate justice (through, for example, FERC denials of disastrous pipeline projects), financial regulation, and antitrust enforcement, among many others. In the case of NBC’s investigation, it’s clear that without Republican interference in appointing Democratic commissioners and overriding CPSC staff’s proposals to address the dangers of baby lounger products, lives could have been saved.
The Biden administration should use all the tools at its disposal, including strong political rhetoric, to pressure Republicans to move forward with the processes of approving and finalizing his nominees, so that independent agencies can be fully staffed and complete their mandates, including in this case, protecting babies from dangerous products marketed to unassuming parents. Additionally, Congress should utilize its oversight authority to compel manufacturers of dangerous products to testify and explain why their bottom line is more important than public safety.
Biden—Don’t Be Allergic To Easy Wins!
This kind of incident, particularly where Republican commissioners are caught red-handed delaying lifesaving regulation, should be an easy and regular political beat for the Biden administration to hit. As we’ve long argued, cracking down on corporations who prioritize profit above basic safety measures and the wellbeing of US consumers is an extremely popular political position.
Moreover, hitting Republicans for their hypocrisy over supposedly “pro-life” stances—particularly while abortion access is under intense attack across the nation—is an easy political win, and would align the Biden administration more closely with progressives fighting the fall out of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision.
It doesn’t take much to imagine the speed with which Republican operatives would put Democratic commissioners on blast if they had delayed protections that could have saved the lives of numerous newborns. While staying more principled and doing less fearmongering than Republican operatives always do, the Biden administration must be bolder and louder in denouncing corporate wrongdoing. And by “loud,” we don’t only mean strong language, but provocative tactics designed to attract attention within both traditional and social media. Such tactics are not only the right thing to do (that’s how accountability is supposed to function in a democracy!), they have the potential to deliver much-needed political wins going into election season.