The dim bulbs of Congress

Republicans had a bright idea: Tuesday night, they orchestrated a vote in the House of Representatives calling for repeal of light-bulb efficiency standards that will take effect at the beginning of 2012. Their argument was that these regulations were an assault on liberties dating back to the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson may have been ambivalent about the slavery issue, but we can say with a great deal of certainty that he never envisioned a future in which the government could tell you how to illuminate your home.

“This is about more than just energy consumption, it is about personal freedom,” said Rep. Joe Barton, the Texas yahoo who helped sponsor the bill. “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.”

We have regulations for supermarket meat. We have regulations for jet airline engine maintenance, and how much explosive gas can be present where coal miners are working, or how many lead-paint chips their kids are allowed to eat. Cars have to be inspected, so that we know the guy barreling toward you in the opposite lane of a rain-slick highway isn’t riding on bald tires. We even have regulations for rating movies, so that the children living in Joe Barton’s district aren’t exposed to too much pornography, lest they get too many crazy ideas in their heads

It’s a regulated world. Societies have to make decisions about what’s right, otherwise chemical companies would still be dumping toxic waste in the most-convenient river.

And in a planet where energy consumption is literally draining the life from the earth, it’s irresponsible for the United States to not take steps to reduce its role as the consumer of one fourth of the world’s energy.

And according to Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, the new standards don’t even specifically ban incandescent bulbs, so Barton’s wrong there. The new rules are technology-neutral, and more-efficient incandescent bulbs have already been developed and are available today. It’s the same as telling the auto industry that it had to produce cars that get better gas mileage.

It’s estimated that the new standards would save the country billions of dollars per year, perhaps $6 billion by 2015 alone. The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, estimates that Americans’ energy costs would drop by an average of 7 percent, or about $85 per household every year. Nationwide savings would be more than $12.5 billion annually by 2020, when the new standards are fully in place.

Wiser heads prevailed, and the bill failed to pass. But the kooky ideas will be back. This wasn’t really about light it was about two things. It was about creating another fake issue, which Republicans prefer working on, rather than tackling tough issues like debt, jobs and wars. And it’s about trying to create an atmosphere favorable for de-regulation. Gotta protect those oil companies and banks from scrutiny.

Conservative political candidates are big into signing pledges these days. Anti-tax pledges. Anti-gay marriage pledges. They’re anti-pro choice. Anti-universal health care. Anti-clean energy.  It’s as if they’ve all signed pledges to not move into the 21st century.