Stop Blaming Obama for Your Lightbulb Problems

The much-derided new lightbulb efficiency standards were a Republican idea, even if Republicans have come to hate them

The much-derided new lightbulb efficiency standards were a Republican idea, even if Republicans have come to hate them

Michele Bachmann GOP debate - Molly Riley Reuters - banner.jpg

We're going to hear a lot more about lightbulbs before the Republican presidential primary is over.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann is leading the charge against lightbulb efficiency standards that will require U.S. consumers to buy more expensive and energy-efficient bulbs starting in 2014, and has made the crusade against them a prominent part of her pitch to primary voters. She rails against the new lightbulbs in stump speeches and spoke out against them during the last nationally televised GOP presidential debate.

"When it came to cap and trade, I fought it with everything that was in me, including I introduced the Lightbulb Freedom of Choice Act so people could all purchase the lightbulb of their choice," Bachmann said on stage in Iowa on Aug. 12, the night before winning the Ames Straw Poll.

Bachmann's bill would repeal standards implemented in the 2007 energy bill, which will end the era of the cheap lightbulb. In 2014, Americans will have to buy the compact fluorescent variety, which costs about $3, as opposed to the sub-$1 incandescent variety currently available just about everywhere. Edison and the Founding Fathers must be spinning in their graves at this development, Republicans seem certain.

Bachmann's ire is shared by libertarians such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who went off on consumer energy-efficiency standards at a House Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing in March. Her anti-lightbulb-efficiency stump lines strike a chord with a tea-party narrative that President Obama has launched a socialist takeover of American life and a totalitarian invasion of personal liberty.

But despite the outcry, the new standards were not Obama's fault -- or even his idea. Yes, he voted for them as part of the broad reform bill in 2007. Yes, his administration is implementing consumer efficiency standards already written into law. And yes, he has actively promoted lightbulb restrictions. "I know light bulbs might not seem sexy," Obama said at a 2009 press conference with Energy Secretary Steven Chu, "but this simple action holds enormous promise because 7 percent of all energy consumed in America is used to light our homes and our businesses."

But the standards were initially proposed by a Republican, Fred Upton of Michigan, the current chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. President Bush signed the new lightbulb standards into law in 2007 along with the rest of the bill, and they generated little partisan controversy at the time. For Republicans, the main legislative sticking points were over auto fuel-efficiency standards, mandatory renewable/petroleum blending at refineries, and then-House-Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) failed attempt to include a requirement that more of the nation's electricity come from renewable sources. When the Senate passed the bill, The Washington Post's writeup mentioned nothing about lightbulbs.

But the changing of the lightbulb standards without remark in 2007 and the hue and cry over them today show just how significantly attitudes toward climate and energy reform have changed since the waning days of the Bush era, when both parties were approaching agreement that energy consumption and global warming needed to be dealt with.

In 2008, the Republican Party nominated Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) as its presidential candidate, after he pushed multiple iterations of a cap-and-trade bill with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). Apart from the issue of oil drilling, the Republican and Democratic parties offered virtually the same energy and climate agenda during the 2008 presidential election.

A lot has changed since then. House Democrats passed a cap-and-trade bill in the summer of 2009. Republicans dubbed the legislation "cap and tax" and successfully ran against it in the 2010 midterm elections, using it in swing districts across the country to take control of the House. In the spring of 2010, as the Senate seemed able to pass a less aggressive climate-change bill by perhaps one vote, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who had been working with Lieberman and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to draft an amendable compromise, withdrew his support out of anger at Democratic plans to push an immigration-reform bill first. It was one of many stories about the death of bipartisanship in the last three years.

Upton has since renounced his support for the very lightbulb standards he made law, voting this summer for a GOP bill that would have repealed his provisions. The bill failed.

It's odd to remember a time when lightbulbs -- not to mention sweeping efficiency requirements -- were relatively uncontroversial and accepted even by Republicans as necessary to preserve the environment and reduce dependence on oil-producing states.

But since 2007, the Republican Party has become more conservative, and the consensus around efficiency standards, emissions reforms, and climate change has completely fallen apart.

The controversy over lightbulbs is just one of many reminders.

Image credit: Molly Riley/Reuters