Light Bulb Saga Illuminates New Republicans: Margaret Carlson

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. A former White House correspondent for Time, she was also Time's first female columnist. She appeared on CNN's "Capital Gang" for 15 years.
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How many Republicans does it take to screw in an energy-efficient light bulb? The answer to that riddle tells us much about the state of the Republican Party in 2011.

The light bulb ban has become a rallying cry on the right. Rush Limbaugh called it an alarming advance of “statism.” Minnesota Representative and Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann promised that “President Bachmann will allow you to buy any light bulb you want in the United States of America.”

The fact that there is no light bulb ban should in no way spoil the fun, of course, but the issue does have some history. Congress passed a bipartisan bill in 2007 requiring a phase-in of more efficient lighting. Under the law, which was drafted with industry input, a 100-watt incandescent bulb would have to use only 72 watts of energy starting in 2012. Consumers, who would save a considerable amount in energy costs, wouldn’t be required to switch to the even more energy-efficient and cost-saving fluorescent bulbs; they could keep using the traditional incandescent variety, provided those met the new standards.

The law passed the House with 95 Republican votes and was signed by President George W. Bush. There were no riots in the streets. Yet by the time Republicans took over the House in January 2011, this previously uncontroversial legislation had become the basis of an ideological war. Between 2007 and 2011, energy waste and pollution seem to have become inviolable conservative principles.

A Party Unmoored

The Republican congressman who was co-author of the 2007 bill, Representative Fred Upton of Michigan, renounced his own work. Republican Representative Joe Barton, who had previously claimed the spotlight to apologize to BP Plc for all the fuss about its little oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, introduced a bill repealing most of Upton’s energy-efficiency provisions. (Bachmann called her version of repeal the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act, arguably her crowning legislative achievement.)

A radical reversal on light bulbs won’t shake the foundations of the republic, but it’s indicative of a party that is unmoored from both philosophy and substantive politics. Republicans today are defined not by what they are for but almost exclusively by what they are against. And they are against just about everything -- including many things they used to be for. Like a code-red transplant patient, Republicans increasingly reject the tissue of their own proposals and their own reasonable history.

The individual mandate was once a pet Republican idea for forcing free riders to pay for their share of society’s health-care costs, a way to enlarge the risk pool so that a system of private insurance could continue to function without bankrupting individuals or the nation. Conservatives didn’t rage against the idea when former Governor Mitt Romney introduced it in Massachusetts. Now it’s tantamount to death by socialism.

Cap-and-trade experienced a similar fate. Having been successfully deployed by President George H.W. Bush to dramatically reduce acid rain, this market-based approach to reducing carbon emissions fell out of favor when Republicans decided that science and those who practice it are ideological enemies, and objective facts, evidence and reality are all tools of the political opposition.

Ditto for federal loan guarantees, which are much in the news due to the recent demise of government-backed solar panel manufacturer Solyndra LLC. Former Republican Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico, a conservative in his day, viewed loan guarantees as an appropriate way to encourage entrepreneurs in high-risk ventures, even calling himself “a longtime advocate of loan guarantees” in one press release. Now Republicans like Senator David Vitter of Louisiana denounce them as “reckless” (though Vitter repeatedly sought loan guarantees for a project in his home state).

No Solutions

The problem here isn’t hypocrisy, which abounds at all points on the political spectrum. It’s that Republicans have abandoned market-based solutions in favor of no solutions at all. They’ve traded in their traditional small-government philosophy for anti-government rage, generally doing their level best to look like yahoos whenever cameras are near.

In reality, there are very few Joe the Plumbers among the largely wealthy, educated and professionally successful members of the House and Senate Republican caucuses. Yet these politicians are so afraid of their noisy anti-government, anti-intellectual wing that they fear expressing support for even the most limited government -- the kind that can fix a highway or keep a bridge from falling down (forget about building Hoover Dam or creating a national park).

In their current frame of mind, House Republicans and their brethren in the Senate may ultimately be legislating against themselves. Whose interests are served when they try to roll back food safety regulations, increasing the likelihood that citizens will be sickened by salmonella and that U.S. food companies will be harmed by the inevitable fallout? If Republicans are so determined to be against something, maybe they ought to drop the war on light bulbs and pick a fight with E. coli.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Margaret Carlson at

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Francis Wilkinson at