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.

“The incandescent ban on light bulbs to improve the environment is about as effective as the low flush toilet,” says Sandy Liddy Bourne, executive director of the American Energy Freedom Center.

Bourne added:

The Clinton-era toilet actually required more water to be used because of the pressure in the infrastructure. The new bulbs are inevitably going to lead to mercury being released in the environment.  This is another misguided effort by central planners that sends American jobs overseas and raises the cost of living for low and middle income families.

It’s already clear that CFLs, which need mercury to work, impose an environmental hazard that may offset the energy savings they produce. The transition to the new technology certainly hasn’t been seamless. Not everyone sells CFLs.They are expensive.  And, contrary to incandescent bulbs, they work best when they are left on, which requires everyone to change their behavior. Turning them on and off, as one does with incandescent bulbs, actually reduces their useful lifespan since they cannot handle the constant power surge.

The BULB Act, says Amy Ridenour of the National Center for Public Policy Research, will draw support from "clever members of both parties” who will “vote to pass it before their constituents are forcibly herded toward mercury-containing compact fluorescent bulbs.”

Ridenour is not a fan of CFLs:

Many elderly people find CFLs hard to read by, and worse, CFLs can cause seizures in people who are prone to them. Seizures can be harmless, but they also can cause brain damage or death.

They are also a potentially hazardous waste, which is why they can’t just be tossed out in the trash when they burn out. They have to be disposed of “properly” -- which means it's just a matter of time before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency comes out with rules governing their disposal along with an accompanying schedule of fines and other penalties that will be imposed on companies and individuals that don’t’ follow along, as happened several years ago with halogen bulbs.

LEDs, which don’t yet seem to have the disposal challenges presented by CFLs, are just too expensive for the average homeowner to use in any kind of quantity. Nevertheless, there were those who thought that forcing consumers to move away from incandescent bulbs and into new technologies before they were fully developed was still a good idea.

Barton’s bill changes all that by eliminating the efficiency standards set to take effect in 2012 and by ensuring that no federal, state, or local lighting requirement can mandate the use of bulbs that contain mercury -- as CFLs do.

Restoring consumer choice is a good idea. Barton, Upton, and the others who are supporting the bill should be commended for taking a position that is actually pro-consumer and, in the totality of things, pro-environment. This is not to say that CFLs and LEDs are not also good ideas. That’s not the point. But mandating their use instead of incandescents ignores the wisdom of the marketplace.

There’s room for more than one technology. What Congress needs to do is get the government out of the way, which is what Barton’s bill proposes to do.

Update: The Obama administration released the following statement today:

July 11, 2011

(House)

STATEMENT OF ADMINISTRATION POLICY

H.R. 2417 - Better Use of Light Bulbs Act

(Rep. Barton, R-TX, and 33 cosponsors)

The Administration opposes HR 2417, which would repeal energy efficiency standards for light bulbs, because it would result in negative economic consequences for U.S. consumers and the economy.  The Department of Energy has estimated that the lighting standards that H.R. 2417 would repeal could collectively save U.S. households nearly $6 billion in 2015 alone.  These standards are: (1) helping to drive U.S. innovation; (2) creating new manufacturing jobs in the United States; (3) saving consumers money by providing them with energy and cost efficient lighting; and (4) reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions.  Further, H.R. 2417 is unnecessary.  Any type of bulb can be sold as long as it meets the efficiency requirements.  In sum, the bill would hinder an opportunity to save American consumers money, while enhancing energy efficiency and reducing harmful emissions associated with energy production.