WASHINGTON, D.C. - Having to buy a squiggly fluorescent light bulb is an affront to personal freedom, some lawmakers are saying as the House decides whether to overturn a law setting new energy-efficiency standards for the bulbs.
House Republicans are pushing legislation that would overturn measures in a 2007 energy act requiring efficiency upgrades in the old-fashioned incandescent light bulb, little changed since it was invented by Thomas Edison in 1879.
Republicans say the new standards, signed into law by President George W. Bush, are a symbol of an overreaching federal government and people should have the right to buy the traditional, cheap and reliable incandescent bulbs. The Obama administration and environmentalists say new bulbs on the market will save American households billions of dollars in energy costs.
The legislation, promoted by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, is being considered under a procedure requiring a two-thirds majority to pass. With Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee urging their colleagues to oppose it, that won't be easy to achieve, and the bill faces dim prospects in the Democratic-controlled Senate. A House vote could come Tuesday.
For some Republicans, the new standards are a glaring example of big brother government. The legislation, Barton said, "is about more than just energy consumption. It is about personal freedom."
The light bulb became an issue after the Republican takeover of the House, when Barton was vying with Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., for the energy panel chairmanship. Upton, who worked with Democrats in crafting the light bulb provisions in the 2007 energy act, eventually got the job, but Barton got his bill on the legislative calendar.
Upton now supports Barton. "The public response on this issue is a clear signal that markets, not governments, should be driving technological advancements," he said.
Conservative talk-show hosts have also jumped on the issue. "Let there be incandescent light and freedom -- that's the American way," said Rush Limbaugh.
Republican presidential contender Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, in her freelance response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address earlier this year, said that under Obama "we bought a bureaucracy that now tells us which light bulbs to buy."
Supporters of the Barton bill also speak of the higher up-front costs of the energy-efficient bulbs and a health risk from mercury in compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs.
Barton said consumers should have the option of paying 30 or 40 cents for an old-fashioned incandescent bulb rather than $6 for a CFL or more for an LED (light-emitting diode). "If you are Al Gore and want to spend $10 for a light bulb, more power to you," he said. But "let people make their own choices."
Democrats waved new energy-efficient incandescent bulbs made in the United States and costing in the $1.50 range. "Yes, this costs a few dimes more. But let me tell you, you start saving dimes the moment you screw these into the socket," said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J.
Those backing the new standards say the mercury risk is negligible and say new incandescent and LED bulbs contain no mercury.
The Obama administration, in a statement released Monday, said it opposes the bill because it would repeal standards that are driving U.S. innovation, creating new manufacturing jobs and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The White House said the bulbs will save American households nearly $6 billion in 2015 alone.
The Energy Department pointed out that energy-saving improvements in refrigerators carried out since the 1970s now save Americans $20 billion a year, or $150 a family.
"Now is not the time to roll back commonsense standards, achieved with bipartisan support, that will save families $6 billion in energy costs," said department spokesman Damien LaVera.
The National Resources Defense Council said that, when the law is fully implemented in 2020, energy costs would be reduced by 7 percent or about $85 a household every year. It said the more efficient bulbs would eliminate the need for 33 large power plants.
Supporters stress that the new rules do not ban incandescent or any specific bulb types, and that stores already offer a choice of energy-saving incandescents, LEDs and the curly CFLs that some find aesthetically displeasing. Instead, new bulbs will have to be 25 to 30 percent more efficient than current incandescent models, which convert only 10 percent of the energy consumed to electricity and give off the rest as heat.
As of Jan. 1, 2012, inefficient 100-watt bulbs will no longer be available at most stores. That will apply to 75-watt bulbs in 2013 and traditional 40- and 60-watt bulbs in 2014.
USA Today and Gallup in February and found that 61 percent judged the law to be good, and 31 percent bad. More than seven in 10 said they've switched to more energy-efficient light bulbs, and 84 percent said they were satisfied with their non-incandescent light bulbs.