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Attack of the dim bulbs

Dan Farber, professor of law | July 13, 2011

The country may be flirting with deadbeat status and risking another financial meltdown, but some people keep their eyes on the prize — they know what’s really important. The House of Representatives yesterday voted on the BULB Act, repealing the federal mandate to increase the energy efficiency of light bulbs. (The bill was considered so urgent that it was brought to the floor under a special suspension of the rules; fortunately, this procedural move backfired when BULB received a majority vote but not the super-majority required under the special procedure.) Good thing that’s the biggest problem facing the country in these days. Honestly, sometimes you wonder whether there are any grown-ups left in this country!

As if that’s not enough, state legislators are trying to get into the act. This just in from Texas:

Texas hopes to get around the law with a measure recently signed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry declaring that incandescent bulbs — if made and sold only in Texas — do not involve interstate commerce and therefore are not subject to federal regulation.

What’s wrong with this law?  Well –  putting aside that it would cost Texas consumers tons of money in higher electricity bills, result in more pollution in Texas, and burden the planet with more carbon –  there’s the fact that it’s a legal nullity.  It’s got exactly the same legal standing as a declaration by me that my salary isn’t really income and can’t be taxed by the federal government.

It’s not up to Texas to decide what is or is not interstate commerce.  That’s a question of federal law, to be decided by the federal courts.  And it’s been plain for a century, since the Shreveport Rate Cases,  that Congress can regulate purely intrastate transactions as an adjunct to regulation of interstate transactions.  The Supreme Court recently reaffirmed that principle, even when the local transactions are non-commercial, in a California case involving medical marijuana.

Texas has some excellent law schools, but apparently everyone in the Texas legislature slept through Con. Law class.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet, a Berkeley Law/UCLA Law collaboration.

Comments to “Attack of the dim bulbs

  1. I’m a strong advocate for resource conservation, and what one might call a “liberal,” but the reality is that the overwhelming majority of CFLs are made in China. Debate the economic or human-right implications of this if you want, the biggest problem here, in my mind, is politics: a dampening of American power via economic dependence. Think about it: our lighting is almost entirely dependent on factories located in a country whose government has engaged in activities large portions of the American public have, at some point or another, been opposed to. What power do we have to stop these activities when our quality of life — the boatloads of light bulbs, and iPads, and screwdrivers, and televisions arriving in the US everyday — could be disrupted by the government engaging in said activities?

    Yes, the Texas state legislators probably are — as you suggest — “dim bulbs.” But, I’m siding with them with regards to the federal mandate: it’s well intentioned, but a bad idea.

  2. As ridiculous as it may seem for Congress to be spending time on this issue now, it is less so than the fact that the use of CFL’s was mandated in the first place. This is yet another example of the federal government stepping into the market without full consideration of the consequences. If anyone is interested in the other side of the issue, go to youtube and search “texas light bulbs” where Rep. Poe’s discourse can be seen.

  3. Farber implicitly assumes that residential utility customers in Texas don’t mind their electricity bills being double. As soon as I heard about compact fluorescent light bulbs, I figured out the savings with 4th grade math and enthusiastically installed them in my home.

    What the Republican house leadership wants to accomplish with legislation like the BULB act is chip away at the expensive bureaucracies, populated by Democrat rent seekers, who enforce unnecessary laws. Since this country is about to run out of money soon because of the Obama spending spree (the trillion dollar economic stimulus dolloped out to the least productive members of society), why not rescind all superfluous laws and spend the money on stuff we really need.

    Like a secure border fence with Mexico to keep job, health care, and social service stealing criminal aliens out of our vastly overpopulated, economically stagnant country. A relatively modest investment would save us hundreds of billions of dollars in welfare and law enforcement costs, not to mention prevent crimes which claim thousands of citizen lives.

  4. Dan,
    Looks as if not all the dim bulbs are in D.C.
    If Texas repealed the law of gravity, they would reduce
    the overburden they impose on the entire continent.

  5. You people up there in San Francisco have something seriously wrong with you. You should just secede from the union since your beliefs are absolutely un-American. This is a free country and “we the people” should at least have the right to use the kind of light bulbs that we like…ones that don’t make us look sickly or poison us with mercury if they break. How do you think you are going to stop people from throwing them in the trash and letting all that mercury get into the landfills. Stay out of our personal business.

    • Joe,

      One could also say your beliefs are “un-American” because you are advocating secession from the United States. We’re all in this together, and a discourse of ideas is important to this nation’s progress. You actually raise a good point on the mercury, and I think more folks would read into it if you show a little more grace in your disagreement.

  6. Dan, the number one solution to global warming is large-scale hybrid nuclear, fission and/or fusion, to eliminate the need for CO2 producing power plants.

    The late NATURE editor, Sir John Maddox concluded in his book “What Remains to Be Discovered:

    “Unconventional sources of energy, although free from CO2 emission, are physically incapable in the next (21st) century of substituting for any but a small part of present energy consumption.”

    UC National Labs has the best expertise and resources in the world to make this happen today before the “window of opportunity” closes and destroys quality of life for our civilization.

    We must immediately find and support new scientific leaders to prevent calamity from being our legacy to our youngest generations, because we must implement the solutions today.

  7. I was under the impression commerce was always about laying a tax on items imported with the intent to sale for the sole purpose of promoting or protecting local manufactures. This is how Marshall in Gibbons described the rules in how commerce is regulated with foreign countries. I don’t see any difference with regulating commerce among the states as Marshall confirmed the power between states and nations is the same.

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