The House Sees the Light

The light bulb, when it appears in the funny papers, is symbolic of a good idea. On Capitol Hill it has been just the opposite.

In 2007, Congress, following the lead of other industrialized nations, took steps to mandate an increase in the energy efficiency of light bulbs sold in the U.S. market. While not directly a ban on the production and sale of the incandescent bulb that goes back to Thomas Edison, the new rules would have made it hard for them to compete with new technologies like compact fluorescent lights (CFL) and light-emitting diodes (LED).

The light bulb ban, as it became known, was a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences in action.

Brian McGraw, a policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says the “incandescent light bulb ban is an outrageous government intrusion into the homes of every American, and public outrage over the ban is significant. Despite the promises of industry, no cost-effective replacements have appeared.”

He’s right. Incandescents are, among their other virtues, easy to install, provide good value for the money, and are time-tested and safe. That’s why they dominate the marketplace. CFLs, on the other hand, are more expensive and, as time has passed, have been shown to present just as many problems as they solve.

Congress, in its infinite wisdom, has seen fit to reverse course. On Wednesday, Texas Republican Joe Barton introduced legislation in the House to repeal the ban.

Barton’s bill, the Better Use of Light Bulbs Act, protects America’s access to the light bulbs of their choice rather than forcing them to purchase CFLs and LEDs by engineering distortions in the marketplace.

“Light bulb efficiency standards,” Barton’s office said, “could carry negative unintended consequences. For example, some mandates could only be met with bulbs that contain dangerous mercury. Rather than having the government limit light bulb options or appear to favor one type of bulb over others, the market should allow consumers to decide on the cost, type, and efficiency of the lighting that works best for them."

There is considerable sentiment in support of Barton’s view, which is shared by Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan and most if not all of the House Republican leadership.

Simply put, the mandate won’t work -- and may create more problems and be more costly than leaving things well enough alone. As Orson Swindle, former commissioner of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, puts it,

The creativity of the private sector has brought us a long way from the days of darkness, kerosene lanterns and candles. Thank you, Thomas Edison. Now the government, despite failure after failure over the decades of government efforts to run the economy, decides to mandate to all consumers that the remarkable incandescent light bulb is no longer to be used. The "government light bulb," like the government energy programs (anti-petroleum) and the government healthcare system, will be far more costly. In addition, reports are still coming in on the rather dangerous fire hazard qualities of the government bulb. Obviously, those responsible for this new government initiative are not the brightest bulbs in the box.

In imposing the standards, Congress took a stab in the dark at making things better -- even when there were precedents that should have suggested its initiative was off target.