One For The (old) Toliet

One For The (old) Toliet

Lieberman Op-Ed in The New York Post
April 01, 2002

What kind of ugliness lurks in the energy bill now before Congress? Just take a look at your toilet.

If it’s a low-flush toilet, that is. These water-stingy models - notorious for expense, and for clogging and/or needing multiple flushes - were mandated under the 1992 Energy Policy Act, the last big energy law to come out of Washington.

The debate and press coverage of that bill focused entirely on the "big" issues - nuclear energy, renewable fuels, utility deregulation, etc. Few at the time even noticed the provision requiring new toilets to use less than half the water of most models then in production. Not a single story informed homeowners that their bathrooms would be undergoing a federally-mandated overhaul.

And despite a huge consumer backlash, the low-flush toilet remains the law.

Fast forward to the new energy bill, now being debated in the Senate. Once again, the focus has been on a few major issues, from oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to car and truck fuel-economy standards.

And, once again, a number of other provisions have been tacked on with little or no public debate, despite their serious implications for consumers.

* 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. A Department of Energy study warns that this provision could hike gas prices by 10 cents a gallon.

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

* Other energy-conservation provisions in the bill cover products like ceiling fans and battery chargers.

As with low-flush toilets, each of these measures carries the risk of unanticipated problems for consumers. And they won’t even achieve their conservation goals - the toilet law hasn’t. (Toilets don’t use enough water to make much difference - and some of the savings went down the drain in multiple flushes.)

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, DC.