Columns » Ernest Dumas

Republicans: not the brightest bulbs


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What do you call a political group that assigns both its abject failures and finest achievements to the opposition and repudiates them all?

In 2011, you call it the Republican Party.

The evidence of the phenomenon lies across the landscape: the effort in the House of Representatives this spring to use the budget to block the regulation of greenhouses gases, which was mandated by President Richard Nixon's Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970; the demonization of Democrats for the massive national debt, which is overwhelmingly a product of the proud policies of three Republican administrations; and the party's flailing at the Affordable Care Act of 2010, which is a weakened version of Presidents Nixon and Ford's health-insurance reforms of 1974 and of the Republican template in Massachusetts fathered by the GOP's presidential frontrunner, Mitt Romney.

The list goes on, and you can add to it the House of Representatives' attempt last week to overturn the light-bulb efficiency law, written by a Republican congressman and proudly signed by President George W. Bush. Now, the Republicans characterize the law as part of President Obama's plan to enslave America.

House Republicans voted by a majority last week to overturn the law but they lacked the two-thirds vote to make it effective, so they voted to strip the Energy Department of funds to enforce the law.

You might expect Republicans to be boasting about an idea that in four years has spurred industry to spectacular innovations that will save American consumers billions of dollars, create jobs, reduce the world's appetite for Middle Eastern oil and slow the warming of the planet. Instead, they are crediting Obama with the idea — he did vote for it as a senator — and demanding that it be stopped.

Paul Krugman asked rhetorically last week in reference to the debt ceiling if the GOP had suddenly gone insane and then answered the question, yes it has. There is no better evidence than the light-bulb folly.

It came about when the two parties got together in 2007 and adopted the Energy Independence and Security Act, which took very modest steps to increase energy efficiency and curb the nation's appetite for oil. Oil congressmen still voted against it but both parties claimed it, and Bush signed it ceremoniously the next day.

Rep. Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan, wrote the small section on light bulbs, which may turn out to be its most significant feature.

Upton's little proviso said that most light bulbs would have to be 25 to 30 percent more efficient by 2014 and at least 60 percent more efficient by 2020. It would not outlaw the old incandescent light bulbs, but they would have to use 28 to 33 percent less electricity than existing models. If they use less electricity, that means less oil or coal will be burned to generate it. That did it for the Koch brothers, who made their billions from oil and gas refineries and pipelines. They had bankrolled Upton in the past but turned on him last year, as did his party after the tea-bag wing became agitated about the bulb conspiracy. Someone said during the campaigns last year that Obama was preparing regulations that would stop Americans from buying the incandescent light bulb they loved so much. It was the beginning of the end for freedom in America.

Even though they were blaming Obama for ending bulb freedom, the Tea Party contingent demanded that Upton be punished. The party told him he could not be chairman of the Energy Committee when the Republicans took control of the House unless he promised to repeal his law. He did.

Arkansas Republican congressmen Tim Griffin, Rick Crawford and Steve Womack voted with the Kochs and the oil industry and against consumers. Democrat Mike Ross voted with consumers.

Here is how Upton described his law in a statement to his Michigan constituents back in 2007:

"Current incandescent bulbs on store shelves are obsolete and highly inefficient — only 10% of the energy consumed by each bulb is for light with 90% wasted on unnecessary heat. Today's incandescent bulbs employ the same technology as the bulbs Thomas Edison first created over 120 years ago. This common sense, bipartisan approach partners with American industry to save energy as well as help foster the creation of new domestic manufacturing jobs. By upgrading to more efficient light bulbs, we will help preserve energy resources and reduce harmful emissions, all the while saving American families billions of dollars in their electric bills ... "

He actually understated its effect. It unleashed a torrent of innovation in the industry. Rather than denying Americans the God-given right to buy their beloved incandescent bulbs, as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck charged, the industry has produced two new incandescent bulbs that use far less electricity and last years longer than the ones then on the market.

It has already produced dramatic innovations in the LED bulb, which uses a tiny fraction of the electricity used by Edison's bulbs. The bulb industry and electric utilities urged Congress not to repeal the law.

Lighting accounts for 22 percent of the electricity used in the United States. It's estimated that the law will save Americans $14 billion a year, roughly $100 a family, and $18 billion if incandescent bulbs were replaced completely. That is the equivalent of the output of 80 coal-burning plants like the new Turk plant at McNab. That would keep 400 million tons of greenhouse gas poison out of the atmosphere.

No self-respecting Republican of 2011 would want that on his record.


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