Energy Bills Leave The Fat Cats Flush

Energy Bills Leave The Fat Cats Flush

Lieberman Op-Ed in The Chicago Sun Times
March 22, 2002

Want to see what's wrong with the current energy bill? Just take a look at your toilet.

If it's a low-flush toilet, that is. These water-stingy models were mandated under the 1992 Energy Policy Act, the last big energy law to come out of Washington. So big, in fact, that few at the time even noticed the addition of an amendment requiring that new toilets use no more than 1.6 gallons per flush--less than half the water of most models then in production. The congressional debate, and the press coverage, focused entirely on the provisions dealing with nuclear energy, renewable fuels, utility deregulation and other weightier matters. Not a single story informed homeowners that their bathrooms would be undergoing a federally mandated overhaul.

However, since the law took effect in 1994, millions of Americans, whether moving into a new house or remodeling a bathroom, have been in for a very unpleasant surprise. Many complain that the new water-saving toilets require additional cleaning and clog up more easily. Others say they now must flush more than once to clear out the bowl, which, in addition to being annoying, cuts into the water conservation purpose behind the law. Adding insult to injury, these new toilets generally cost more than their better-performing predecessors.

Anger over the low-flush toilets has coalesced into perhaps the largest consumer backlash ever against a federal product mandate. In response to constituent complaints, Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) introduced a bill in the House to repeal the measure. Though it has enjoyed considerable support, it has thus far stalled in committee, due in large part to lobbying by toilet manufacturers who prefer the guaranteed market for these pricey, low-flush models.

Fast-forward to the new energy bill being debated in the Senate. Once again, the focus has been on a few major issues, particularly opening up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil-drilling, and increasing fuel economy standards for motor vehicles. Once again, a number of other provisions have been tacked on with little or no public debate, despite their serious implications for consumers.

For example, Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and other Midwestern legislators have added a measure mandating that a minimum amount of ethanol be added to gasoline. Ethanol, largely derived from corn, costs about twice as much as ordinary gasoline, which explains why Archer Daniels Midland and other ethanol producers need Washington to force its product on the driving public. According to one initial estimate, this provision could add as much as 10 cents to the price per gallon in the years ahead.

Senate Democrats have also called for a new ultra-strict energy conservation standard for central air-conditioning systems. The Energy Department estimates that this provision will add $335 to $435 to the cost of a new air conditioner or heat pump. Others, including the National Association of Home Builders, fear even higher costs. The department also concedes that only a minority of homeowners can expect to earn back the higher upfront cost in the form of energy savings over the life of the system.

The bill also contains energy conservation provisions affecting several other products, including ceiling fans and battery chargers. As with low-flush toilets, each of these measures carries the risk of unanticipated problems for consumers. And, if past is prologue, this bill will probably get larded up even further in the weeks ahead.

By the time it reaches its final form, the energy package will likely contain many little-noticed but potentially anti-consumer provisions that deserve to be flushed. If you can only find a toilet capable of doing the job.

Ben Lieberman is a senior policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in Washington, D.C.