The BULB Act and the Inertia of the Administrative State

This week, the U.S. House of Representatives is likely to pass legislation–dubbed the “Better Use of Light Bulbs Act,” or BULB Act, for short, that will repeal the now infamous ban on the incandescent light bulb.

I’ll resist the temptation to offer a “How many congressmen does it take to change a light bulb law?” joke, and just say that any bill that has to reference the definition of “medium screw base” as stipulated in the Energy Policy and Conservation Act is kind of complicated.

Still, the BULB Act is only two pages in length. And its constitutional justification is simple: the law enacted in 2007 that put Thomas Edison’s light bulb on course of ultimate extinction is an unwarranted federal intrusion into a matter better left to free markets and individual choice.

Yes, it’s come to this: Congress must pass a law that undoes another law so that the plain old 100-watt light bulb can survive to see 2012. (Sixty-watt incandescents are set to dim by 2013, and 40-watt bulbs will be extinguished by 2014). As of now there is little chance that the Senate–which has gone 800 days without passing a budget, much less a light bulb bill–will adopt the BULB Act. Even if both chambers pass the Act, there is even less likelihood that President Obama will sign it into law.

Thus the long death of the incandescent light bulb will go down in history as a bipartisan achievement–a bill signed into law by President George W. Bush, and kept in place by Democrats.

In many ways, the incandescent light bulb ban is the perfect encapsulation of the administrative state, which stands today as the signal achievement of more than a century of Progressive politics.

First off, the original piece of legislation that banned the old bulb–all 806 pages of it–is not really a law, if we take that term in its traditional meaning. Rather, it’s just a concatenation of rules and regulations, jargon and bureaucratic gibberish, strung together like one huge long set of Christmas lights, with every other one malfunctioning and all the red ones blinking. Good laws are reflective of reason, not merely will, and the energy bill of 2007–like nearly all omnibus legislation–is much more will than reason, more “force” than “reflection,” to recall the first Federalist.

Secondly, the mandatory replacement of the outmoded bulbs was sold as an economically and environmentally necessary measure. Many of the ideas of the original Progressives (Woodrow Wilson & Co.), plus the programs of the New Deal (Franklin D. Roosevelt), the Great Society (Lyndon B. Johnson), and of Progressivism 4.0 (Obama/Pelosi/Reid) follow a similar strategy: emphasize the necessity of a proposed measure, tout its irresistible societal benefits, and sell the bill of goods to the people. Combined with a strict “no returns” policy, this ensures that the beneficiaries come to realize whatever it was that the experts claimed to know all along.

Thirdly, with the light bulb ban, as with the administrative state as a whole, liberty is lost gradually, not immediately. It’s kind of like what happens to your eyes when you try to read in a room lit by the compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs that are supposed to replace Edison’s old bulbs. Before you know it, your eyes hurt and you have a headache. Pretty soon, you can’t see much at all.

And watch out if you break one of those CFL’s–not only will you have to clear the kids out of the room–but you might have to clear out your house altogether. A new study published in Environmental Engineering Science warns that after it is broken, a CFL bulb continues to release mercury vapor into the air for up to months at a time at a level that may be unfit for human exposure. So keep your EPA-recommended clean-up guides handy–you might need them starting January 1, 2012.

The fourth point is that in addition to selling its “innovations” based upon necessity, the administrative state, especially its current version, also loves to enlist private enterprise in its efforts so as to demonstrate its supposed friendliness to market competition. In reality, Progressives harbor a deep distrust of markets, but today seem to think that their distrust can be masked by support of “public-private partnerships.”

In the case of the light bulb ban, the same law that effected the elimination of the old bulbs mandated a contest for the creation of energy-efficient alternatives, complete with $20 million in taxpayer-funded prizes. Although the bill requiring the competition was enacted in 2007, it seems that the Energy Department is only now getting around to opening up the contest. The names of the prizes as specified in the legislation do have a certain catchy ring to them–for example, the Parabolic Aluminized Reflector Type 38 Halogen Replacement Lamp Prize–but alas, like much of the rest of the federal government, the Web site link for the contest is broken. Real innovation is not catalyzed by gimmicky government intervention.

The fifth and final way in which the light bulb ban encapsulates the administrative state is that once in place, edicts of the administrative state are very difficult to undo. Whether for a comparatively little thing like a light bulb ban or the massive entitlement programs of the New Deal and Great Society, the administrative state’s enactments have an inertial force that is nearly irresistible.

The House’s anticipated action this week –something that according to Republican promises made during the election should have been accomplished many months ago–comes with no committee hearings, testimony, or even a carefully coordinated plan. One of the chief proponents of the original light bulb ban, Michigan Republican Fred Upton, now finds himself–as the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman–as the reluctant but key proponent of its partial repeal.

If “we the people” can’t even reverse a lousy federal ban on incandescent light bulbs, how will we see the light on the larger things of our national future?