Mitt Romney’s misfire on light bulb standards
"And the government would have banned Thomas Edison’s light bulb. Oh yeah, Obama’s regulators actually did just that."
— Mitt Romney, March 19, 2012
During an economic speech on Monday, the former Massachusetts governor and presidential hopeful charged that the Obama administration “banned” Thomas Edison’s light bulb.
Let’s take a look at this contentious issue.
Thomas Edison did not invent the incandescent light bulb, but he did make it commercially viable, filing his first patent for improvements in 1878. And, then 129 years later, President George W. Bush signed into law the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.
The bill passed both Houses of Congress with big bipartisan votes — 264 to 163 in the House of Representatives and 65 to 27 in the Senate. When Bush signed it, he lauded it for including “revisions to improve energy efficiency in lighting and appliances.”
One of those revisions included minimum efficiency standards, requiring common light bulbs use at least 25 percent less electricity. The regulations were due to take effect for 100 watt bulbs at the beginning of 2012, but a nine-month delay in enforcement was added in an agreement to avoid a government shutdown late last year.
Incandescent bulbs are remarkably inefficient, converting less than 10 percent of the energy they use into light and more than 90 percent into heat. As the Congressional Research Service put it, “some critics refer to traditional incandescent bulbs as ‘resistance heaters that also give off light.’” So the new law was designed to save billions of dollars in electricity costs and reduce carbon emissions.
The law does not ban or specifically prohibit incandescent light bulbs, but they must meet the new efficiency standards. As a practical matter, that means many of the cheap bulbs now being sold will no longer be manufactured as they are replaced by new, more efficient bulbs.
The up-front cost of the new bulbs is likely to be higher, but over time the bulbs are supposed to pay for themselves because they lose less energy and do not need to be replaced as often.
Moreover, the industry is already responding, not just to the U.S. law but similar efficiency standards that have been mandated in countries around the world. American manufacturers have invested millions of dollars to meet the law’s requirements and are not about to change course now.
Getting back to Romney’s comment, it’s a little difficult to know how Edison would have responded to today’s regulations, though, as Plum Line noted, Edison was a Republican back in the days when Republicans favored more regulation than Democrats.
But it is simply incorrect to say that “Obama’s regulators” banned the incandescent bulb.
Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney campaign senior adviser, acknowledged that “President Bush signed the bill, but don’t lose sight of the fact that the Obama administration took aggressive action to block Republican attempts to repeal the ban.”
He then included a number of news clippings showing Obama administration support for the law, including one that included this interesting quote from Energy Secretary Steven Chu: “We are taking away a choice that continues to let people waste their own money.”
Chu’s statement may be politically tone-deaf, but it is not quite the same as “ban.” Moreover, the industry is already moving full-speed ahead with the efficiency standards, not requiring any nudge from regulators.
It’s a cheap political shot for Romney to blame “Obama’s regulators” for a proposal that was signed into law by a Republican president and was broadly supported at the time. Moreover, we don’t see how higher efficiency standards translates into a “ban,” especially when light manufacturers have embraced the new standards.
UPDATE: In Romney's speech after his victory in the Illinois primary, he made an interesting adjustment in his rhetoric, perhaps in response to this column: "And the government would have banned Thomas Edison’s light bulb. Oh, that’s right. They just did." Note that he dropped the reference to "Obama's regulators" and instead made it much vaguer--and thus more factual. Whether or not this is "a ban" is a subject of dispute--some readers disagreed--but we are pleased that Romney no longer is blaming Obama. His new language would bring the rating down at least a Pinocchio.
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