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Michael Burgess: The TT Interview

The Republican congressman from Lewisville on his objections to a law setting higher efficiency standards for lightbulbs and how he intends to stop the Department of Energy from enforcing the standards.

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Many issues energize both sides in Congress, especially those that touch on the role of government. One issue that particularly riles some Republicans: lightbulbs. 

Specifically, efficiency standards for lightbulbs set by a 2007 law that ended the sale of the common 100-watt incandescent bulb.

When the House takes up spending bills in the coming weeks to keep the federal government running in the next fiscal year, U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, will offer an amendment to block funding to the Department of Energy for the implementation of the higher lightbulb efficiency standards, he told the Tribune.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, signed into law by then-President George W. Bush, does not ban the sale or use of incandescent lightbulbs but requires that manufacturers make them 25 percent more efficient. Higher efficiency standards that went into effect Jan. 1 ended the import and manufacture of 100-watt incandescent bulbs. (Stores are allowed to sell remaining inventory.) 

The standards, which measure how much light a watt of power produces, will rise over the next two years and phase out 75-watt incandescent bulbs in 2013 and 60-watt and 40-watt incandescent bulbs in 2014. Most of the energy in incandescent bulbs goes toward producing heat, not light.

Critics of the 2007 law say that the federal government has no business limiting Americans’ lightbulb options, and that the replacement bulbs — compact fluorescent and LED bulbs — cost more and don’t perform as well. Some also point to the dangers of mercury in the fluorescent bulbs.

Supporters argue that the standards help the environment and will save money in the long run. The savings nationwide could amount to $6 billion a year by 2015, according to Kathleen Hogan, the Department of Energy’s deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency.

Burgess has a history of fighting the 2007 law, along with fellow Texas Congressman Joe Barton, R-Ennis. In 2010, both lawmakers, with Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, introduced a bill to repeal the section in the law that creates the efficiency standards. That bill died in committee. Barton tried to advance a similar bill last July but couldn’t garner enough votes.

Burgess then introduced a narrower measure last July that passed: an amendment to the energy and water spending bill to block the Department of Energy from spending money toward implementing the efficiency standards.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor placed the energy and water spending bill on his calendar for Thursday and Friday under “possible consideration.” Once the bill comes to the House floor, Burgess will introduce his amendment.

Burgess explained his opposition to the 2007 law in an interview with the Tribune. The following is an edited version of the transcript.

TT: Last year, you introduced an amendment to the appropriations bill. Do you have something planned this year?

Burgess: Yes.

TT: Exactly the same thing?

Burgess: Correct. It’s the Energy and Water Appropriations bill. And it’s to prevent the Department of Energy from spending any funds for the enforcement of the ban on the 100-watt incandescent bulb.

TT: Why is this an issue you care about?

Burgess: For one thing, it’s the government exercising power nobody ever intended to give them in the first place. We can all be okay with increasing the efficiency of our lightbulbs. That’s ultimately a good thing. But the mandatory or compulsory purchase of those by excluding the availability of the older and cheaper technology was really a step too far, and it also was compounded by the fact that there was no bridging mechanism.

In 2007, perhaps people thought that in five years, the newer technologies would be available at a price point that made them competitive but the fact of the matter is they aren’t. Lacking any type of flexibility in the legislation, it seems unreasonable to make people pay the kind of price differential that they will have to shell out in order to get a comparable lumens from the newer technology bulb.

TT: So it’s not that you have anything against fluorescent bulbs, except for the prices.

Burgess: This is not so much about pro- or anti-fluorescent. Now, there are some people that are concerned with mercury in the compact fluorescent bulb. There is newer technology coming along with other things that will allow lightbulbs to meet the energy standards without the reliance on the compact fluorescent design. But there, again, the biggest obstacle is the cost of these newer technology incandescents that are able to meet the government’s requirement for number of watts burned per lumen produced, but the cost is about a hundred times what it was for the older incandescent bulbs.

TT: And those costs aren’t covered by the eventual savings?

Burgess: One of these new Philips bulbs that burns 72 watts for the same lumens as a 100 watt (incandescent) bulb — that costs $60 apiece. I don’t think I’d live long enough to recoup the savings.

TT: Sen. Jeff Bingaman (the New Mexico Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee) says that cutting off funding will have little effect because lightbulb manufacturers have been working toward these standards for many years.

Burgess: Fine, that’s just great. But to the extent that they have existing stock in the warehouses and want to be able to sell them at your local hardware store, they will be able to do so without running afoul of the enforcement people at the Department of Energy. That’s all my little amendment does. It keeps them safe while they sell these stores of existing technology.

TT: What is it that you’re hoping to achieve on this issue?

Burgess: What got people so upset about this was the government wading into an area where it didn’t have any business in the first place. Let me make my own decisions about how much energy I purchase and how I use that energy. It’s not that I have anything against energy efficiency as a concept or as a practice. I drive a hybrid car. When my wife and I built our house in 2005, we put dimmer switches on every light in the house because we wanted to be able to control the amount of light that we used in a given room at a given time. Now I’m being told that it’s not good enough for me to have that freedom and that ability to control. The government wants to do it for me. Well, that’s what drives people over the edge. There’s no reason for that. Let me make my decisions about how many kilowatt hours I consume and I’ll be a better arbiter about that than Dr. Chu and his folks at the Department of Energy.

TT: You mentioned some of the things you’ve been doing personally, and I’m curious, what kind of lightbulbs do you use? Were you one of the people who stocked up on incandescent bulbs at the end of last year before the law went into effect this Jan. 1?

Burgess: That would be my son, and he will sell you a bunch of those at a hefty markup. I have compact fluorescent bulbs that I use in my home. I have LEDs that I use. But let’s be honest, in order to get the output form current technology LED bulbs, you’ve got to spend a significant amount of money for that bulb. The two LED bulbs I put outside my backdoor several years ago are little better than Christmas lights out there. They perform perhaps a decorative service, but they’re not really doing much as far as illuminating the path of the staircase or even keeping my home burglar-free. The output is simply inconsistent with anything that I had before when I had incandescent bulbs out there. There’s another area where I did purchase a more expensive LED that I leave burning overnight to shine on the flag and I thought that was a nice patriotic decision. That’s not the government telling me how to do or what to do with that.

TT: Is this an issue you’ve heard from your constituents about?

Burgess: You bet. First and foremost, they’re upset about the federal government taking power that didn’t belong to it in the first place. But I’ve got people who are entrepreneurs, who sell fashion lighting and designer lighting and their place in the market has just about been eliminated because these very expensive bulbs that are coming online, the market’s dried up, their ability to mark up a product and combine it with a decorative, fashion-conscious lamp is, I mean, it’s just gone away.

So the market’s disappeared and it’s disappeared because of action that Congress took in 2007. Was it really necessary in the grand scheme of things? I’ll submit to you that no, it was not. This was a solution in search of a problem, and as a consequence, we’ve hurt real people on the ground.

TT: The particular amendment that you would offer, that would just be on the funding side of it. It wouldn’t be about repealing the law that passed in 2007, right?

Burgess: There were other attempts to do that. They failed. My last ditch attempt was, “oh for heaven’s sake, let’s not punish anybody if they sell 100-watt incandescent bulbs in their hardware store.” And that’s what my amendment did. Now, like anything else, think about the ban on offshore drilling that was essentially an amendment that had to be renewed every year. The Hyde Amendment, banning the use of federal funds for the termination of pregnancy, had to be renewed every year. So there’s plenty of precedent in Congress for doing something on an appropriations bill every year to keep a practice going or to prevent a practice you don’t want to see happen. So this is no different from some of those other things.

TT: Your goal ultimately would be to get a repeal of the law.

Burgess: That’s not possible with the current makeup of the Senate. That’s not possible with the current occupant in the White House. But, yes, should some of those things change, then you bet I could go to work on that again in a heartbeat.  

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