House Republicans fail to save 30-cent light bulbs from extinction

A House bill to roll back energy-efficiency standards that would phase out cheap but inefficient incandescent light bulbs by next year fell short of the supermajority it needed to pass Tuesday.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP/File
Rep. Joe Barton (R) of Texas, pictured here in 2010, led the charge to try to save cheap incandescent light bulbs that waste 95 percent of the energy they consume.

House Republicans Tuesday failed to overturn energy-efficiency standards that would have allowed Americans to continue buying cheap but inefficient incandescent light bulbs next year.

Republicans had argued during debates Monday that the lighting-efficiency standards approved on a bipartisan basis in 2007 amounted to excess government control over Americans' lives.

“We should let the marketplace decide,” Rep. Joe Barton (R) of Texas, the new bill's sponsor, said in a floor debate Monday. “We should repeal this de facto ban, and we should let people decide if they want to buy a $6 light bulb or a 39-cent light bulb.”

Traditional incandescent bulbs cost about about 30 to 50 cents apiece, while updated incandescent versions cost $1.50. The latter pay for themselves in energy savings in about six months, efficiency advocates say.

In an often fractious Congress, energy efficiency has been a point of agreement – and repealing the bulb measures was self-defeating, said Rep. Mike Doyle (D) of Pennsylvania. “In Congress, we don’t always agree on much, but for the last 25 years, we’ve agreed on energy standards,” he said. “The lighting industry has already begun to be revolutionized."

Because of the way the bill was brought to the floor of the House for a vote, the Barton measure needed a two-thirds majority to succeed. It fell short of that supermajority, 233 to 192. Five Democrats broke ranks to vote for the measure, while 10 Republicans voted against it. Going forward, the bulb-efficiency rollback idea could morph into a rider to a budget bill or other bargaining chip in debt negotiations, analysts say.

Presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota has cited the issue in a statement earlier this year: "The American people want less government intrusion into their lives, not more, and that includes staying out of their personal light-bulb choices."

Indeed, tea party activists supported by talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck had been talking regularly about it. "This really has become a political issue more than anything else," says Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project. "Many [who voted for the bill] were simply afraid of being challenged by the political right."

Environmentalists hailed the vote. Some 95 percent of the electricity used by traditional incandescent bulbs becomes wasted heat. Moreover, by keeping the 2007 law, the House also avoided rolling back efficiency standards on a large number of other lighting fixtures.

"The House has averted a legislative step backwards in time for America’s light bulbs," said Sean Garren, a spokesman for Environment America. "It is commendable that the House voted against repealing common-sense energy standards."

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