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Homepage (Subscribers) / ENERGY

Battle of the Bulb

House Takes Aim at Efficiency Standards

photo of Coral Davenport
July 8, 2011

This version corrects the title of Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

House GOP leaders are ginning up excitement for this week’s high-wattage vote to roll back lightbulb efficiency standards—or, as Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, likes to call it, the “Save the Lightbulb” bill.

The bill, and the rallying cry of “Save the Lightbulb!” have become unlikely hallmarks of the tea party movement, touted by presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann and talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Tea party conservatives have targeted an obscure lightbulb efficiency provision tucked into a broad 2007 energy law as symbolic of what they call government overregulation. They passionately decry the law as a “ban” on the familiar incandescent lightbulbs that Americans have used for most of the last century.

 

Despite all the political crossfire over lightbulbs, it’s unlikely that Republicans will succeed: The House vote will take place under a procedural rule requiring a two-thirds majority, which makes it uncertain whether it will pass—while it is certain to die in the Democratic-controlled Senate. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R. Va., had scheduled a vote for Monday evening, but it's being pushed back until Tuesday, his office said Monday morning.

The provision requires that by 2012, lightbulb manufacturers produce bulbs that generate the same amount of light but use less electricity to do it. It would not outlaw incandescent bulbs, nor mandate production of the curlicue-shaped compact fluorescent bulbs. The new energy-efficient bulbs, which hit hardware and drugstore shelves this year, are similar in appearance to the old bulbs—they have the familiar shape and cast the same warm light. They are more expensive than the old bulbs but last longer and have the net effect of saving consumers money, according to the Energy Department, which estimates that the bulb law will save Americans $6 billion annually in energy costs. 

At the time it was introduced, the legislation was championed by Democratic and Republican leaders alike. The original 2007 lightbulb efficiency language was cosponsored by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. It passed easily through the House Energy and Commerce Committee and was added as an amendment to a bill that passed the Senate by a vote of 86-8, passed the House by a vote of 314-100, and was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

So how did Republicans get from there to here on the lightbulb law?         

The answer has very little to do with energy policy and everything to do with tea party politics.

Barton, the bill’s sponsor, turned his attention to the lightbulb law last fall, when he found himself pitted in a bitter contest with Upton for chairmanship of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. The rivalry played out in the weeks after the November elections, when Republicans were giddy with excitement over their tea party-fueled takeover of the House.

The conservative Barton, who has declared that he was “tea party before tea party was cool,” rode that wave in his campaign against Upton, digging up pieces of his opponent’s record that he believed would show that Upton was too moderate to hold a prominent leadership post. Among them: Upton’s sponsorship of the lightbulb standards.

Barton turned Upton’s support of the lightbulb standard into one of his key pieces of ammunition against the moderate Michigander, launching the “Save the Lightbulb” campaign. It was promptly picked up by Beck, Limbaugh, and Bachmann. Barton ultimately lost the contest for Energy Chairman, but his lightbulb campaign became a top talking point for conservatives.

By February, it had gained steam and a Senate companion bill, introduced on February 17 by Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo. In a sign of its momentum, 27 other Republicans signed on to the bill that day.  

All of that alarmed manufacturers, who had begun producing the new bulbs, and feared the rollback of the standards would undermine their investments in developing energy-efficient bulbs. Bulb-maker Philips began an aggressive lobbying campaign, meeting with lawmakers and staffers on Capitol Hill, urging them not to roll back the lightbulb law. They brought along samples of the new bulbs, similar in appearance to the old bulbs.

“The new energy-efficient incandescent bulbs look and feel just like the old lights that consumers are used to. The only real difference Americans will notice with the new lightbulbs is their lower electricity bills. Electricity savings per family will be about $100 per year,” said Randy Moorhead, vice president of Government Affairs for Philips Electronics, reprising the pitch he’s been making tirelessly to GOP lawmakers. 

After meeting with Philips, some Republican energy-policy staffers privately admitted that rolling back the lightbulb law seemed like a bad idea, especially when they saw that the efficient bulbs looked exactly like the old bulbs, and learned that manufacturers feared they would hurt their bottom line.

Despite the quiet heartburn that the bill is now generating in some moderate Republican offices, GOP leaders are still driving it forward, in hopes that the House floor debate will generate campaign talking points for tea party candidates across the country—including Bachmann. 

And in a sign that all this has generated concern in the highest quarters of Washington, Energy Secretary Steven Chu on Friday held a press call with former Republican Sen. John Warner, R-Va., in an effort to shore up support for the law.

“Right now many families around the country are struggling to pay their energy bills, and leaders in the house want to roll back these standards that will save families money,” said Chu.

Under the current law, “You’ll still be able to buy halogen incandescent bulbs. They’ll look and feel the same, but the only difference is that they’ll save consumers money,” he said.

Of tea partiers’s philosophical argument that the law would deprive consumers of the choice of lighting products, Chu said, these standards are not taking choices away, they are "putting money back in the pockets of American families.”

Warner, who now lobbies his former colleagues on energy issues, said rolling back the law would freeze up business growth. "If I were a financier trying to help the small-business community, I would say, 'Wait a minute—if Congress is going to start stripping out provisions of this landmark legislation, then there’s no regulatory certainty—and I’m not going to lend you the money.' ”  

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