Bureaucratic Blunder Gets In Your Pocket

originally published in the New Britain Herald, Middletown Press and Bristol Press

With the economy careening toward Great Depression 2.0, socially responsible writers like me produce helpful news-you-can-use articles in the “How to save money for the tough times ahead” genre. So here goes: Clip coupons, brown bag your lunches, turn down the heat and put a sweater on.

And a bonus tip for parents whose children are in their “growing like a weed” phase (birth through college): Since your kids outgrow their outfits every three months anyway, you can save a bundle by shopping at consignment stores, thrift shops and other used-stuff emporiums.

Until Feb. 10. That’s the day a law called the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act is slated to come into force and effectively make it illegal to sell used clothing, toys or any other item for children below age 12. Goodbye, Goodwill. Sayonara, Salvation Army. Farewell, flea market.

What the law actually requires is that all such products for sale first be tested for lead and other harmful chemicals. If you’re a large, established company with an enormous operating budget, this’ll be inconvenient, but at least you can probably afford it. If you’re a little mom-and-pop business, a startup on a shoestring or a charity thrift store subsisting on donations, you probably cannot.

So if the law isn’t changed, on Feb. 10 all untested children’s clothes and toys for sale in new and secondhand shops across America will be legally deemed “hazardous waste” and dumped into landfills.

This is to protect The Children. Remember the thousand or so “poison Chinese consumer product” stories you saw last year? And all the outraged Americans who demanded government do something about them?

Government did. If you watch pharmaceutical commercials, you know that any prescription comes with nasty side effects, and it’s just too bad the prescription “Test every children’s item sold” has the side effect “Drive everyone out of business except the big chain stores and manufacturers.”

To lawmakers’ credit, they had the grace to act embarrassed when small at-home clothing and toy makers said these testing costs would drive them out of business. So there’s talk of exempting all-natural items, such as cotton or wool, from the test mandates. But no exemption for artificial materials such as synthetic dyes and polyester threads that are still found in every kid’s item in America. No exemption for hand-me-downs, either.

The Act passed unanimously in the House of Representatives (all five of Connecticut’s Congresscritters voted for it) and by an overwhelming majority in the Senate (both of Connecticut’s Senators voted for it) before President Bush signed it into law (at least he’s leaving).

So if you’re happy with the child-safety boost scheduled for February, make sure you call your elected officials and express your gratitude. “Thanks for driving up the cost of new items and making the sale of used ones impossible,” you can say. “And thanks for giving big retailers a boost, too. Obliterating the competition ought to help their bottom line.”

Perhaps the politicians — or their flunkies assigned to speak with constituents — will harrumph and tell you, “We’re looking into it. We didn’t realize how far-reaching this law actually was.” In which case you can reply, “Oh. Thanks for voting on a law without knowing what the hell you voted for, then.” And if you’re feeling double-extra-super grateful, you can add, “No wonder Congress voted itself a pay raise last year. You guys deserve it.”