Rand Paul and the 19-Year Libertarian War on Low-Flow Toilets

First, House Republicans cast aside the biodegradable cups, plates and utensils the House cafeteria stocked under Nancy Pelosi, staking out a bold preference for styrofoam and plastic. Now, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wants to go back to the toilets and lightbulbs of yesteryear nationwide.

Last week Paul vented over a decade of personal frustration with federal efficiency standards for toilets and lightbulbs, delivering an extended piece of his mind to hearing witness Kathleen Hogan, the deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency and the U.S. Department of Energy.

"You can't go around your house without being told what to buy. You restrict my purchases, you don't care about my choices, you don't care about the consumer, frankly," Paul told Hogan at an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing.

"Frankly, the toilets don't work in my house," Paul said. "And I blame you, and people like you who want to tell me what I can install in my house, what I can do."

It sounds off the wall, but these toilet and lightbulb regulations have bothered libertarians for years.

During the Clinton era, John Stossel lit into toilet regulations on "20/20." In 2007, Stossel recounted:

I did a segment on that for "20/20" mocking the endless rule-making process, which somehow concluded that exactly 1.6 gallons is all that every toilet needs. I interviewed people who were so unhappy with their new toilets that they were combing junkyards for old ones, or going to Canada to buy them. Homeowners and apartment managers kept telling me, "The toilets don't work!"

In 2008, the Libertarian Party's executive director at the time, Shane Cory, remarked that "If you outlaw lightbulbs, then only outlaws will have lightbulbs." A Google search will reveal some background grousing by various bloggers and columnists over the years.

"Yes, yes. Oh, my goodness, yes," Peggy Venable, Texas state director for Americans for Prosperity, told me when I asked if she's heard libertarians in her state talk about toilets and lightbulbs before Paul's diatribe.

"Especially here in Austin," said Venable, who told me the state's liberal capital has tighter local energy-efficiency restrictions. "Sure enough, the last toilet I bought here in Austin was a water-efficient toilet, and it's like it's for little midgets. It's a little bitty toilet."

The low-flow (1.6 gallon) limit on toilets was instituted with the 1992 Energy Policy Act, signed into law by George H.W. Bush. Prior to that, toilets used anywhere from 3.5 to 5 gallons, according to major toilet manufacturer American Standard. In 1999, then-Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) introduced a law to repeal the restriction, along with other efficiency standards for faucets, showerheads and urinals instituted in the 1992 bill. Knollenberg gained the support of 107 cosponsors, including Rand's father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), and now-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Lightbulbs, meanwhile, have it worse.

The incandescent lightbulb, a staple of first-world living for the past century, will be phased out of the U.S. market beginning in 2012. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, passed by the relatively new Democratic Congress and signed by then-President Bush, will force U.S. consumers to switch to more energy-efficient bulbs by 2014. The coiled, flourescent bulbs cost about $3, compared to $.50 for a regular bulb.

Paul's diatribe seems to be resonating. The Campaign for Liberty, Ron Paul's 501(c)4 group, which maintains the remnants of the elder Paul's campaign e-mail list, sent a video clip of the toilet talk at last week's hearing to its 760,000 supporters, praising Rand Paul for "taking the fight to the statists."

The video has been viewed just over 192,000 times on YouTube -- hardly "Chocolate Rain," but enough to generate some discussion. Libertarians have heard about Paul's strong words, and they're praising him for them.

Beyond the immediate buzz, conservative activists seem to agree that toilets and lightbulbs make for good talking points as examples of federal intrusion that fit within a broader libertarian narrative about the current administration.

"I think it's a great bridge issue, because people relate it to their regular life, and they can see the folly involved in this government's intervention and overregulation," said Jesse Benton, Ron Paul's political director.

Of course, Grist's David Roberts has another suggestion: the Australian-designed Sydney Smart. If Roberts follows through on his pledge, Paul will end up with a free toilet to go with his YouTube views and satisfied political base. Not that he'd want it.