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.

It’s not just the Energy and Commerce Committee that’s seen such reversals. The lawmakers vying for chairmanship of the House Appropriations Committee have in the past voted for trillions of dollars of spending and have been staunch defenders of earmarking, but are now vowing to oversee a GOP-led earmark ban and deep spending cuts.

Mr. McKenna said making an about-face can help — especially in the case of Mr. Upton, whose willingness to revisit his own legislation could help win over colleagues.

“He’s shown a remarkable willingness to listen to the voters, which is very rare, and he’s shown a remarkable willingness to listen to his colleagues, which is almost as rare,” said Mr. McKenna, who runs MWR Strategies. “This thing about light bulbs is a good example of what’s going to make him a good chairman.”

Mrs. Harman, the Democrat with whom Mr. Upton teamed up to push the light bulb rules, said the repeal efforts will fail.

“The 2007 law was supported by industry, environmental groups and a strong bipartisan majority in Congress,” she said. “I see no chance that the Senate or White House will permit it to be repealed.”

Indeed, the proposal she and Mr. Upton spearheaded was adopted in committee on a voice vote in 2007.

Federal officials say 272 million CFLs were sold in the U.S. in 2009, and they argue that the environmental and safety fears have been blown out of proportion. An Environmental Protection Agency document on CFLs said that if every U.S. home would change out just one old bulb with a CFL, it could in one year save enough energy to light 3 million homes, or prevent greenhouse-gas emissions equivalent to 800,000 cars.

For repeal to succeed, legislation would have to pass the House and the Senate, which Democrats will continue to control next year, and then be signed by President Obama.

Regardless of the prospects, the issue has captured the changing sentiments on Capitol Hill, where “repeal” is a common word among the GOP.

Mr. Upton, for example, has promised to repeal this year’s massive health insurance overhaul as well as the host of rules the Obama administration has released.

“The countless regulations that are smothering job growth will be in the cross hairs,” he said.

The House Republican Steering Committee is scheduled to vote Tuesday on committee chairmanships, and the entire House Republican Conference will ratify the recommendations later.

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