In Battle to Ban Energy-Saving Light Bulbs, GOP Defends ‘Personal Liberty’

A new breed of Tea party conservatives has cast the promotion of efficient lights as an example of government interference

Michele Bachmann
Presidential contender Michele Bachmann is pushing a bill that would repeal a law to phase out incandescent bulbs from 2012. Credit: Gage Skidmore

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Republicans in Congress are pressing for a vote on Monday on one of the stranger elements of their environmental agenda — a ban on the adoption of energy-efficient light bulbs. A bill championed by presidential contender Michele Bachmann and others would repeal a law phasing out incandescent bulbs from 2012.

According to some reports, the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives was pressing to introduce the bill under rules that would limit debate, but also require a two-thirds vote to pass. Energy-saving bulbs were seen as an entirely harmless innovation — even by the same Republicans who now oppose them — when the lighting efficiency measure was signed into law by the then president, George W Bush, as part of a broader energy package.

The 2007 law would have started phasing out old-fashioned 100-watt bulbs starting in January 2012, with an aim of making light bulbs more than 25 percent efficient. Incandescent bulbs emit most of the energy they consume as heat.

Fred Upton, now the chair of the energy and commerce committee, supported the law — a vote which has come back to haunt him in a more conservative Congress. The initiative also had the support of lighting manufacturers.

But the new breed of Tea party conservatives, encouraged by chat show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, have cast the promotion of the more efficient LED and CFL lights as a shining example of needless government interference.

They also argue that the bulbs cost more than the old-fashioned variety and are health hazards, because they contain mercury. But their most passionately voiced argument is freedom. Hanging on to the old-style bulbs is really about personal liberty, they say.

Republicans in the Texas, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina state legislatures are also working on measures to keep burning incandescent bulbs. “This is about more than just energy consumption, it is about personal freedom,” said Joe Barton, the Texas Republican behind the new bill, said in a statement after last year’s mid-term election.

“Voters sent us a message in November that it is time for politicians and activists in Washington to stop interfering in their lives and manipulating the free market. The light bulb ban is the perfect symbol of that frustration. People don’t want Congress dictating what light fixtures they can use.”

However the energy secretary, Steven Chu, has argued that the 2007 law does not amount to a blanket ban on all incandescent bulbs. But it does require those bulbs to be more efficient.

“These standards do not ban incandescent bulbs,” Chu told a conference call with reporters. “You’re still going to be able to buy halogen incandescent bulbs. They’ll look exactly like the ones you’re used to. They can dim. They cut out instantly. They look and feel the same.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council also produced a study on Friday suggesting that the energy-saving bulbs would save the average American household $85 a year on their electricity bill. They would also eliminate the need for 30 large power plants, reporters were told.