Upton flips a switch on CFL bulbs

Feeling heat, lawmaker sees light on incandescents

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Three years after he led the charge to require consumers to ditch their comfortable old incandescent lights in favor of those twisty CFL bulbs, Rep. Fred Upton now wants to be the man to help undo that law as the next chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

That about-face is not unique among lawmakers looking to atone for stances they’ve taken over the past decade as they seek to gain top posts in a decidedly more conservative Republican Congress, but his reversal underscores how intent the GOP is on proving it has broken with past practices.

“We have heard the grass roots loud and clear, and will have a hearing early next Congress,” said Mr. Upton, a Michigan Republican who is facing several others in his party in a bid to earn the gavel of the powerful committee. “The last thing we wanted to do was infringe upon personal liberties — and this has been a good lesson that Congress does not always know best.”

Indeed, the compact fluorescent lamp, or CFL, has become a symbol of government overreach for many consumers, who wonder what was wrong with the incandescent bulbs that have lighted their kitchens, family rooms and bedrooms for more than a century.

The government says incandescent bulbs have too short a life span and are inefficient, wasting most of their energy on heat rather than on light. CFLs, on the other hand, can last up to 10 times as long and use 75 percent less electricity.

Still, they were slow to catch on, prompting industry, environmentalists and lawmakers to team up and give consumers a push. Mr. Upton joined Rep. Jane Harman, California Democrat, to co-sponsor legislation to phase out incandescent bulbs beginning in 2012. Their bill was incorporated into the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, which passed with wide bipartisan majorities and was signed into law by Republican President George W. Bush.

But in the intervening years, CFLs have joined low-flow toilets in drawing the scorn of consumers, and some argue that the bulbs’ mercury content poses a safety and environmental hazard.

Some consumers even said they are stockpiling incandescent bulbs to defy the phaseout.

“It’s emblematic of everything that’s wrong in the relationship between Washington and the voters. There was no conversation; there was no back-and-forth. The voters woke up one morning, and they said you can’t buy incandescent light bulbs,” said Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist and energy lobbyist who has followed the issue.

Mr. Upton and other lawmakers — including the other three men seeking the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee — now say they’ve learned their lesson and want to unshackle consumers and restore their choice in light bulbs.

Rep. Joe L. Barton — who is the ranking Republican on the committee, but would need a term-limit waiver to serve as chairman — introduced a bill in September to undo the incandescent-bulb phaseout, and last month he told the Heritage Foundation that he would “repeal that law right off the bat to show that we’re going to put market forces back into play.”

Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican seeking the chairman’s gavel, also has called for outright repeal.

“While we must continue to work to improve energy efficiency and reduce our energy consumption, the misguided ban on incandescent light bulbs needs to be repealed,” he said. “Banning a product that has been used safely for more than 100 years in favor of Chinese imported CFLs that pose considerable health risks is yet another example of more government intrusion into Americans’ personal lives.”

Steve Tomaszewski, a spokesman for Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois, another hopeful for the chair, said his boss is aware of the problems with the new bulbs and “has experienced them personally.” He said Mr. Shimkus thinks the committee should look at whether the bulbs are reliable and whether they are as energy-efficient as advertised.

Mr. Upton and Mr. Shimkus voted for the 2007 energy bill that included the phaseout, while Mr. Stearns and Mr. Barton voted against the legislation.

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