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It's time for consumer issues to get attention

Last year, Congress made headlines by holding hearings on hot-button issues — from credit card crisis to food safety. Was it all a case of grandstanding? Was anything accomplished?

Congress is back in session and lawmakers have a lot on their plate right now. Clearly, an economic stimulus package tops the list.

But a number of important consumer issues that made headlines in 2007 are still pending and need to be addressed.

Last year, Congress made a lot of headlines by holding hearings on some of these hot-button issues — from credit card crisis to food safety. Was it all a case of grandstanding? Was anything accomplished?

Well, one thing is for sure. The problems have not been resolved.

I spoke with some of the top consumer advocates in the country to find out what tops their legislative agendas.

Mortgage reform
The mortgage meltdown is far from over. Many more Americans will lose their homes in 2008.

In early December, the Bush administration worked out a deal with the mortgage industry to freeze the low “teaser” rates on some subprime mortgages for five years. But according to the Associated Press, only 250,000 people will get a rate freeze, while 3.5 million home loans could go into default during the next two-and-a-half years.

“A lot of lenders used predatory and deceptive practices – lies and misrepresentations – to get people into these loans,” says Linda Sherry, director of national policies at Consumer Action. Sherry wants Congress to help those who face foreclosure and pass legislation to prevent a similar mess from happening again.

Consumer Action says Congress should change the bankruptcy code, so people who file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection (where you pay back some of what you owe) can keep their home. Right now, a judge can let them keep a vacation house or a boat, but not their primary residence. That’s absurd!

For those of you facing foreclosure and are looking for help, visit this site.

Credit cards
“We’re looking for Congress to rein in some of the traps and tricks that many Americans are fed up with,” says Travis Plunkett, legislative director for the Consumer Federation of America.

Last year Congress summoned the leaders of the country’s biggest banks to Capitol Hill and took them to task for what critics call punitive fees and unjustified interest rate hikes. But so far, no legislation has been passed.

One of the most onerous practices that should be outlawed is called universal default. You can have a perfect payment record with a credit card company, but if you are late paying another bill or your credit score slips for some reason (maybe you have big medical bills) you can get hit with the default interest rate – as high as 30 percent a year.

Several big banks say they’ve gotten rid of the universal default penalty. If they have, this action is voluntary, which means it can return at any time. Congress needs to ban this unfair practice to prevent every credit card issuer from using it.

Lawmakers also need to put an end to credit card contracts that let the bank change the terms of the deal – boost penalty fees or change the interest rate – at any time and for any reason – with just 15 days notice. This is blatantly unfair.

Food safety
Congress tends to react to a crisis. And lawmakers did respond to last year’s headlines about tainted food from China. Hearings were held and some important bills were introduced. But not a single one has passed.

A huge portion of the U.S. food supply is imported, and relatively little is inspected before it goes to market.

“Right now, we have an open door policy for most food products coming into the country,” says Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Clearly, more needs to be done to catch potentially harmful food imports before people get sick. Regulations are also needed to insure the safety of the food from American farms.

“In terms of regulatory action, we’re pretty much where we were when the spinach outbreak occurred in 2006,” says Smith DeWaal.

FDA has issued new safety guidelines for farmers, but these aren’t binding. Many farmers and processors have implemented tougher food safety programs. But again, these are all voluntary. CSPI wants Congress to require farmers to write plans that would insure the safety of their farming practices.

Product safety
Congress just gave the Consumer Product Safety Commission more money. The Commission’s budget will increase from $63 to $80 million. This will make it possible to put more federal inspectors on the beat – something that’s sorely needed.

But there’s much more to be done. Congress needs to pass tougher safety laws and give the CPSC power to enforce them through mandatory recalls.

For example, lead paint cannot be used on toys, but children’s jewelry can be made with lead – there’s no regulation that prohibits it. This is ludicrous!

A lead trinket with a high lead content can be fatal if swallowed by a small child.

Don Mays, senior director of product safety and planning at Consumers Union, says more than 175 million pieces of children’s jewelry have been voluntarily recalled the last few years because of high lead levels.

CPSC is working on a rule to deal with this ongoing problem. Mays says that’s not good enough and it’s not happening quickly enough.

“They need to have mandatory authority to pull that stuff off the market and prevent it from coming into the market in the first place,” Mays says.

And get this – current law does not prohibit retailers from selling products that have been voluntarily recalled. It’s also legal for manufacturers to ship recalled products to another country for sale. Consumers Union wants both practices banned.

Toy safety
Last year was a record one for toy recalls. The toy industry has done many things to improve its safety performance and restore customer confidence. Oversight at foreign factories, especially China, has been greatly improved. Independent tests are now done by manufacturers and retailers. But all of this is voluntary. It could stop at any time.

“There’s still trouble in toyland,” says Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. PIRG, who wants Congress to protect America’s youngest consumers.

The House passed legislation that would give the CPSC more authority to ban dangerous toys. It would also lower the permissible limits of lead in children’s products. There’s a tougher bill in the Senate, but it’s been stalled. Mierzwinski blames toy makers for that.

“They convinced senators to go slow,” he charges, “hoping the Senate would adopt the House bill, which is a positive step forward, but not as strong as the Senate bill.”

What’s in the Senate bill that’s not in the House version? Mierzwinski says it imposes higher penalties on wrong doers, protects product safety whistle blowers, and makes it easier for the public to learn about product hazards.

The bottom line
This unfinished business needs to move off the back burner. The health, safety, and financial well-being of the American people depend on it.

Think it’s time for Congress to get going on these issues? Then let your elected representatives know how you feel. Use this congressional directory to find contact information.

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