It was a contentious scene.
On Sept. 28, members of the Consumer Product Safety Commission met to discuss yet another change to the implementation of the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act. Three of the commissioners, all Democrats, wanted to restrict the definition of an unblockable drain in such a way that another round of retrofits would be required.
The five commissioners sat lined up, facing those in attendance, with two Republicans on one side, two Democrats on the other, and Chairman Inez Tenenbaum, a Democrat, in the middle.
The Republicans, Anne Northup and Nancy Nord, spoke out against the change. While the Democrats worried that the original interpretation allowed for unsafe installations, the Republicans didn’t believe the most likely form of retrofit would be any safer. They also objected to making the change without the 60-day public comment period generally allowed.
The rhetoric became hostile, with the Republicans accusing the Democrats of ignoring due process and calling the meeting with a predetermined outcome, and the Democrats questioning the Republicans’ concern for children’s safety. Multiple times, one of the Democrats confronted the Republicans by saying their comments would offend the parents of entrapment victims seated nearby.
Northup didn’t let that unsympathetic characterization stand. “I have lost a child and I know it is life-changing,” she said. “You are never the same. You want to change the world. And, to their credit, they have changed the world.”
Northup says she wasn’t trying to bring attention to herself, but there wasn’t much the opposition could say at that point. Her comment allowed her to return to why she believed the alteration was wrong. It also demonstrated how this fiscal conservative isn’t defined solely by her philosophical bent, but sees the issue from several vantage points — as a mother, consumer, a student of business and, it turns out, a swimmer.
Northup sits on a commission where party-line contention is so severe that a recent Washington Post article questioned its ability to properly regulate safety.
She is the most recent appointee to the agency, named by President Obama in 2009. Before that, she served on behalf of Kentucky in the House of Representatives from 1997 to 2007, and was a member of the House Appropriations Committee, where she sought to reduce government spending.
“My mother had a degree in economics,” she said. “So even as a little girl, I understood how important a growing and competitive economy is for individuals to support their families [and] afford a better standard of living through hard work.”
Raised in a family of 11 children in a suburb of Louisville, Northup attended St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind. She received a bachelor’s degree in economics and business in 1970.
Northup was raised with a serious respect for the water, and was told never to leave one of her younger siblings in the bathtub unattended, even for a few seconds. “My father used to say, ‘I don’t care if it’s Paul McCartney from the Beatles calling. You pick that child up out of the bathtub if you think you have to get it ... or you let it ring.’”
Her family had a close connection to pools — she and her nine sisters all swam competitively. “Compared to my sisters, I swam very slowly,” she said. “I was athletic, but that just wasn’t one of my strengths.”
However, that wasn’t the case for Northup’s sister, Mary T. Meagher Plant, who swam in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, bringing home three golds and a bronze medal. She also held the record for the 200-meter butterfly for nearly two decades.
In addition, her husband, Robert “Woody” Northup, was a state champion swimmer, and all six of their children competed, with three taking state titles and two breaking records.
One of her last votes in the House was in support of the first version of the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act in December 2006. That bill failed before it was ultimately resurrected and passed the following year. Northup broke with the majority of her party: 107 Republicans voted against the bill, while she and 52 others approved it.
“I’m familiar with swimming pools,” she said. “And I can remember drain covers that were missing. I remember under the diving board, where it was, when I was 7 years old and thinking, ‘I wonder if I put my hand in there, if anything would happen?’”
Today she stands by her vote, but when she voiced that “Yay,” she didn’t anticipate the number of changes and contention that would follow. “I always was under the impression that regulatory agencies would make sense of these regulations and bring their expertise to the interpretations of these bills,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons that I’ve been so outspoken about this commission not being more balanced, because I know what I expected when I voted for provisions such as this.”
As her comments at the recent CPSC hearings indicated, she also can relate to the sorrow of the victims’ parents who disagree with her. Five years ago, her son died suddenly of a heart attack at age 30.
“I think what these parents have done is to the benefit of child safety, of everybody’s safety,” she said. “But what is wrong is to say that if we really cared about those parents, we would adopt the solution for which they are advocating, even though they may not be aware of all the new technical advancements.
“That’s wrong, just as it would be for me to advocate that every single 29-year-old man have a heart stress test because I don’t want [what happened to my son] to happen to anybody else.”