Incandescent Light Bulb Insanity and the Groucho Marx Republicans

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The William Wallaces of the Republican Party are defending our freedom again, this time our freedom to buy inefficient light bulbs. The GOP-controlled House is about to pass a bill to repeal the lighting efficiency standards that Congress passed and President Bush signed in 2007, standards that the lighting industry actually supported.  The federal government sets energy-efficiency standards for all kinds of products, but Republicans have decided that these are particularly tyrannical, because they ban all incandescent bulbs. Thomas Edison invented incandescent bulbs! What’s next: banning rotary-dial telephones?

Except that Congress didn’t ban incandescent bulbs. It simply required them to use less energy, and manufacturers are responding with a new generation of more efficient incandescents. Say what you want about that biker dude who got killed when he fell off his bike at a rally protesting mandatory helmet laws, but at least those laws were really mandatory. Did Republicans even bother to read the bills before deciding it was evidence of an evil socialist nanny-state conspiracy?

Why, yes.  In fact, a Republican wrote the bill.

The lighting standards were the brainchild of GOP Congressman Fred Upton of Michigan, who explained them thusly in a press release at the time:

Current incandescent bulbs on store shelves are obsolete and highly inefficient—only 10% of the energy consumed by each bulb is for light with 90% wasted on unnecessary heat. Today’s incandescent bulbs employ the same technology as the bulbs Thomas Edison first created over 120 years ago.

This common sense, bipartisan approach partners with American industry to save energy as well as help foster the creation of new domestic manufacturing jobs. By upgrading to more efficient light bulbs, we will help preserve energy resources and reduce harmful emission [sic], all the while saving American families billions of dollars in their electric bills—and the benefits will be as easy as a flip of the switch.

You won’t find that press release on Upton’s website, because he’s now chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and he’s now helping to repeal his own legislation. But Daniel Weiss of the Center for American Progress found it. As Weiss points out, Upton publicly defended the light-bulb standards as recently as 2009, but after the midterms, he changed his tune after Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck tried to mount a campaign to deny him the gavel.

As I have explained at stultifying length, efficiency is the killer app for our energy problems. And efficiency standards – for cars, appliances, server farms and industrial machinery as well as light bulbs – are a virtually pain-free way to dramatically reduce our energy independence, our carbon emissions and our utility bills.  They do involve a bit of government interference in the free market, but they set the same rules for the entire industry, so they keep a level playing field for everyone. Today’s refrigerators use one fourth the power of models from the 1970s, even though they’re bigger and cheaper. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy estimates that the light-bulb standards will save U.S. consumers $6-$12 billion a year when fully implemented.

But these policy considerations are irrelevant. The “repeal of the light bulb ban” is pure political theater; Republicans know that it’s not going to pass the Senate, and if it somehow did, President Obama would veto it. Efficiency is bad because Obama supports it. Former Republican Senator John Warner joined Energy Secretary Steven Chu for a news conference defending the standards earlier this week, but he can do that because he’s a former Republican Senator. Former Republican officeholders supported Obama’s health care reforms, too.  But when current Republican officeholders support stuff Obama likes–as then Florida governor Charlie Crist and Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter did with the stimulus–they tend to become former Republican officeholders.

Weiss compared GOP obstructionism to this Groucho Marx clip from Horsefeathers, which I found terribly infuriating, because I should have thought of it first. You might want to keep it in mind when you’re watching the debt-ceiling crisis unfold:

“Your proposition may be good,
But let’s have one thing understood,
Whatever it is, I’m against it!
And even when you’ve changed it or condensed it,
I’m against it.”