An embarrassing distraction

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Last week, Gov. Rick Perry signed into law a bill that overrides a federal mandate phasing out incandescent lightbulbs. The legislation flies in the face of constitutional authority and judicial precedent. Unfortunately, it is also symptomatic of state Republicans’ continued efforts to score cheap political points at the expense of solving real problems.

One of the provisions of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, passed by Congress and signed into law by then President George W. Bush, stipulated that today’s incandescent lightbulbs would be gradually phased out starting in 2012. The ubiquitous lightbulb, described in The New York Times as “technology that arose around the time of the telegraph and the steam locomotive,” has for decades been eclipsed in efficiency by its rivals. One of them, the compact fluorescent lamp, had been favored by Congress to replace the incandescent bulbs because of its greater energy efficiency (read: lower electric bill), longer lifespan, and potential in reducing greenhouse gases.

None of these reasons have prevented state Republicans from attacking the federal law based on what they perceive to be flaws inherent in the lamps. They point out that lamps are generally more expensive to purchase than incandescent lightbulbs. According to the government-run Energy Star program a lamp can save more than $40 in electricity costs over a lifetime.

They also point out that, unlike incandescent bulbs, fluoresent lamps contain mercury and are a hazard to homes everywhere, although Consumer Reports states that “each bulb has a tiny fraction of the mercury in a traditional fever thermometer.”

Perhaps most predictably, these Republican politicians are conjuring up images of the mandate as an unfair diktat of which the primary intention is to strip individual choice from freedom-loving Texans, just as Obamacare’s health insurance mandate supposedly did. Yet when the federal government mandated in the late 1990s an end to the manufacture of chlorofluorocarbon, a harmful compound in refrigerators proven to damage the ozone layer, no state Republican was quick to protest at this presumed loss of freedom.

The new Texas law, ratified as HB 2510, states that any incandescent lightbulb manufactured in Texas and labeled as “Made in Texas” can be freely sold on Texas soil.

The rationale of the bill’s authors was that since the U.S. Constitution permits the federal government to regulate commerce between states (vis-a-vis the Commerce Clause), the same government can’t regulate commerce within a state itself. As long as the Texas-made incandescent was created strictly for the Texas consumer, Uncle Sam has no legal prerogative to interfere.

But this new state law blatantly ignores the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, which holds that a federal law supersedes any state laws. Moreover, the landmark Supreme Court case Wickard v. Filburn (1942) also recognized the federal government’s right to regulate economic activity. It’s a sad day when our state government feels compelled to challenge the federal government’s authority over such an inconsequential issue as a lightbulb mandate.

Yet such radical actions make sense when the current legislative session at the Capitol has been one of the most ideologically driven in recent memory.

State Republican lawmakers have also made national headlines when they began aggressively supporting a so-called “anti-groping bill.” The bill could press criminal charges against federal Transportation Security Administration employees if they were deemed to be groping passengers. In retaliation, the Department of Justice threatened to ground all flights originating from Texas, which prompted state Republicans to back down and withdraw the bill.

Both the “anti-groping bill” and the recently passed lightbulb law are echoes of a Republican zeal to pander to their base by finding increasingly frivolous reasons to pick fights with Washington. By furthering the narrative of states’ rights against an intrusive federal government preoccupied with lightbulb mandates instead of job growth, state Republicans are engaging in embarrassing distractions that do not solve our state’s serious economic issues this summer.

Quazi is a nursing graduate student.