Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Bachmann, light bulbs and contradictions

Rep. Michele Bachmann
REUTERS/Larry Downing
Rep. Michele Bachmann

For those of you who can’t seem to get enough of Michele Bachmann’s brand of wisdom, your cup is about to overflow.

She has announced her intention to form an exploratory committee designed to assess whether there is any sense in her running for the office of president of the United States.  The committee will find lots of support for Minnesota’s 6th District republican representative. She is the darling of the phenomenon known as the Tea Party movement. If she finds a way to get elected president, one thing is certain — there will be no energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs in the White House.

She doesn’t like them. She once said that if you drop one in your house, you would have to bring in people in hazmat outfits to sweep up the broken bulb.

But that’s not the real issue for Bachmann. What she is worried about most is the phasing out of old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs under former President George W. Bush’s Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

Some people have called it a ban. The law doesn’t ban incandescents, but sets performance standards most of the old-style bulbs can’t meet. The real reason Bachmann wants to do away with the light bulb phase-out is she just doesn’t like the government sticking its nose into everyone’s lampshade.

She has been very busy stumping in Iowa and elsewhere, and I haven’t spoken to her directly.  However, Doug Sachtleben, her communications director in Washington, passed a note to her and she responded to me in this fashion: “By a forced phase-out of incandescent light bulbs, the government is again deciding that it knows better than consumers.”

That is music to the ears of members of the Tea Party movement, many of whom believe our government is creeping toward socialism.

Phase-out could go forward if…
But her latest bill to strike the phase-out of incandescent light bulbs contains language that seems unlike the Bachmann we’ve come to know. In her bill, the congresswoman says that the phase-out could go forward if the Comptroller General’s office verifies the promised performance gains of the new technology. Bachmann’s response continues: “It should be incumbent on our government to prove the environmental and economic claims made about CFL [compact fluorescent light] bulbs, and disprove concerns about health risks they may pose.” The full language of the bill also mentions “the phase-out required by those amendments will reduce overall carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent in the United States by the year 2025.” (Italics mine.)

Stop the presses.

Rep. Bachmann wants to make sure the new bulbs will reduce carbon dioxide emissions!  She has been repeatedly quoted as saying carbon dioxide emissions are not a problem, are harmless and even helpful.

Has she changed her tune? That’s not likely. She might be hoping claims of a 20 percent reduction of carbon dioxide emissions with CFL bulbs cannot be proved. That alone would scuttle the phase-out.

This is the second time she has introduced a bill calling for the repeal of the phase-out. The last attempt went nowhere. And, this latest bill is only one of the repeal bills in Congress. There is another, offered by Texas Republican Joe Barton. It is officially H.R. 6144, but is getting more play in the press because of its title: the “Better use of Light Bulb” Act. The BULB Bill.

Both of these bills may need some reworking as technology is advancing at the speed of light, which is appreciably faster than the arthritic pace of Congress. Bachmann’s main concern is with compact fluorescent bulbs.  History may eventually show that CFL bulbs were just the beginning of new bulb technology. Already there are better, higher efficiency bulbs available, with more on the horizon.

Mercury in bulbs
The mercury in CFL bulbs is still a concern for a lot of consumers. LEDs (light-emitting diode), halogen lamps, and a new light called ESLs (electron stimulated luminescence) will replace CFLs. LEDs and ESLs have no mercury. They don’t have the problem of slow start up when the switch is thrown, they are dimmable and their lifespan is not shortened by frequent cycling, which is simply how often you turn the light on and off.  GE says it will have a hybrid bulb out next year combining the best of halogen and CFLs.  The LEDs are more expensive than incandescents and the cheapest CFLs. Manufacturers say the higher cost is offset by the much longer life of LEDs.  

Rep. Bachmann may be playing to the Tea Party faithful, but she certainly isn’t helping another important part of the Republican base — business. Businesses have been switching to higher efficiency lights at a pace greater than the general public. It is not because the businesses are necessarily good stewards of the earth, or have gone all fuzzy on the environment. Lower electricity bills mean higher profits.

Electrical industry groups are on record opposing the lifting of the phase-out. The Association of Electrical and Medical Imaging Equipment Manufacturers (NEMA) said in a press release: “The reality is that consumer preference already has been shifting away from incandescent products.”

NEMA’s figures show that the market for standard household incandescent bulbs dropped by 50 percent in the past five years. It points out that roughly 22 percent of all electricity demand in the United States goes to lighting. The potential for energy savings, according to NEMA, is “immense.” Then, the most Republican of assertions: “American businesses and consumers will annually save billions of dollars in electricity bills once the transition is complete.”

Dr. David Morris, vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, told me why the new bulbs are important. “The new light bulb is how energy efficiency gets into every room of the house,” he said.

But the newest lighting systems have a much higher front-end cost. “Americans have always disliked ‘first costs,'” Morris said.

Building an economy of scale often requires people to pay more in the beginning until prices are driven down by competition. “People just don’t seem to look at this in terms of return-on-investment,” he said.”They think ROI when they invest, or buy stock, not when the buy light bulbs.”

Hoarding bulbs
Morris is not convinced all Americans are willing to pay a high premium on the promise of lower bills in the future, and he anticipates opposition. There have been scattered reports of incandenscent “hoarding.”

“Maybe the Tea Party will dump a shipload of CFL’s into the harbor,” Morris said.

Rep. Bachmann’s spokesperson says staff is exploring whether a thorough government study of CFL bulbs can be started prior to legislative action. Morris is puzzled. “This thing has already been studied to death by the government,” Morris said.

Sachtleben told me the Comptroller General’s office stands ready to initiate the study required by Bachmann’s bill. But if it examines only CFLs, which may be a dim memory by the next decade, and fails to look at the newest technology, the study will be a waste of the taxpayer money, and Rep. Bachmann would never stand for that. No one with presidential aspirations would want that on her record.

Here’s a link to the NEMA website on the phase-out repeal bills.

Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by John Reinan on 03/29/2011 - 07:26 am.

    I’m not wading into the political waters, but it does seem like there could be better subjects to pick a fight over than incandescent bulbs.

    I once read a description calling them “heaters that happen to give off some light.”

  2. Submitted by Annie Grandy on 03/29/2011 - 08:10 am.

    That great watchdog of government spending,, Michelle Bachmann, will continue to demand more studies until the results say what she wants them to say. A presidential try may be the best way to get her out of Congress. You go for it girl!

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/29/2011 - 08:11 am.

    From my own experience, there are many who do not like the light given off by the CFL bulbs and are planning to stock up on the old incandescent before they disappear from the market. This is an issue that cuts across political lines, so it’s not as strange a political foothold as it might seem at first.

    The biggest irony is under Bachmann the government would stay out of our light fixtures, but would be in our beds.

    It is extremely odd how the Republicans stress “competitiveness” but ignore the fact that significant cost savings to individuals and society and government(as well as environmental savings) could occur with such minor changes.

  4. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 03/29/2011 - 08:18 am.

    Might want to mention the mercury given off in the air by burning coal. Using CFL’s cuts that way more than any trace mercury found in the bulbs.

    According to the EPA, here is a list of consumer products that contain mercury:

    * Airflow/fan limit controls
    * Antiques
    * Appliances (Electric)
    * Appliances (Gas-fired)
    * Barometers
    * Button cell batteries
    * Clothes irons
    * Electronics
    * Gas flow regulators
    * Heating and cooling systems
    * Jewelry
    * Lamps/Light bulbs
    * Light switches (Silent)
    * Mercury
    * Paint (Latex)
    * Pesticides
    * Plumbing
    * Security systems
    * Shoes
    * Sporting Equipment
    * Television Sets
    * Thermometers
    * Thermostats
    * Tilt Switches

  5. Submitted by Bill Hansen on 03/29/2011 - 08:23 am.

    Good article. Almost 20 years ago I cut energy consumption at my business by nearly 30% mostly by replacing incandescents with CFLs and replacing florescent magnetic ballasts with electronic ballasts. Government can play a very useful role in encouraging innovation that clearly benefits society.

    Rep. Bachmann’s delusions are mildly entertaining, but we need to remember that they do a lot of damage in the real world.

  6. Submitted by Rosemary Rocco on 03/29/2011 - 08:46 am.

    The contradictions about the assurances Representative Bachmann seeks with respect to carbon emissions, it seems to me perfectly consistent that she defends the incandescent light bulb. The perfect consistency? Incandescent bulbs only use 10% of the energy they consume to achieve their purpose, shedding light. The remaining 90% is wasted in heating the air.

  7. Submitted by Richard Molby on 03/29/2011 - 10:19 am.

    So, these same folks who are “concerned” about mercury in CFLs – are they as concerned about mercury levels in coal-fired power plant smoke?

  8. Submitted by B Maginnis on 03/29/2011 - 10:30 am.

    In your professional opinion, have they now added a third telprompter to Obama’s line-up, so that it appears he is looking straight ahead occasionally, as well as the usual side to side gazing?

  9. Submitted by John Reinan on 03/29/2011 - 11:00 am.

    I’ve never understood the continued references to Obama and teleprompters. Every single national politician of both parties for the last 50 years has used teleprompters to give televised speeches. It’s a standard part of a televised broadcast, just like lighting and microphones.

    Politicians who go on TV also wear makeup. Why not make fun of that too, BD?

  10. Submitted by Cecil North on 03/29/2011 - 11:31 am.

    In a saner world, it would be ironic that Bachmann has her shorts in a bind over consumers’ light-bulb choices while, simultaneously demanding government intervention in reproduction and marriage.

    Whether to go with incandescent bulbs or a more efficient alternative is a personal choice that has direct impact on the community at large: energy use ends up determining our use of natural resources, our health, and even our national security. Thus, light-bulb choice is an appropriate subject of government action.

    Bachmann’s “social” issues, on the other hand, involve personal choices that have no impact on the broader community whatsoever: no one’s health, security or welfare is threatened by a person’s decision to have an abortion or to marry someone of their own gender. Thus, these “social” issues are NOT an appropriate subject of government action.

    Seems pretty simple to me. It’s clear that Bachmann is not only wrong on the facts; she is wrong about the whole notion of government.

  11. Submitted by Peter Dublin on 03/29/2011 - 11:50 am.

    No light bulbs should be banned…

    There is no present or future shortage of energy sources for electricity
    justifying telling what paying consumers can use,
    especially since the overall USA energy savings from light bulb regulations
    are less than 1% anyway,
    based on the US Dept of Energy’s own statistics ( )
    -remember the politicians keep including non-incandescent street and
    industrial lighting in the usual high US usage percentages quoted.

    Much greater, and much more relevant, energy waste savings arise from
    effectively organized electricity generation and grid distribution,
    and from reducing the unnecessary use of appliances:
    rather than from stopping people in their choice of what appliance to use.

  12. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 03/29/2011 - 11:56 am.

    I think BD is just jealous because unlike Bachmann, Obama actually knows how to use the teleprompter.

  13. Submitted by Alicia DeMatteo on 03/29/2011 - 12:32 pm.

    So under this logic of consumer knows best, not the government, we could introduce (or re-introduce) all kinds of fun things to the marketplace under a Bachmann Whitehouse! From meth to asbestos to Fen Phen to human kidneys! It’ll be a carcinogen peddler’s dream come true!

  14. Submitted by Jim Halonen on 03/29/2011 - 02:32 pm.

    “It’s not a ban, but performance standards set so high the incandecents cannot meet”. To a conservative and pro-choice ( in lightbulbs), that is a ban. Imagine that, liberals even want to control what light bulbs we use!

  15. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 03/29/2011 - 02:43 pm.

    Peter’s (#13) link isn’t actually to anything from the Department of Energy, but to a crackpot website full of unsupported nonsense. As the story points out, 22 percent of energy use is from lighting, and non-incandecsent bulbs can reduce energy consumption 75 percent or more. Needless to say that the claim that switching to more efficient bulbs produces less than a one percent savings is false. I am not sure why including street lighting and industrial lighting being included is even relevant. Industries and municipalities can switch (and frequently are switching) to more efficient lighting.

    About five years ago I replaced all of my light bulbs, and replaced my refrigerator, washer and dryer with energy efficient models. I cut my electricity bills in half, and have long since paid for the new appliances and bulbs with the savings. I also have replaced only one burnt out bulb during that time. Looking back, the decision was a no-brainer. Deciding whether or not to upgrade your light bulbs is like deciding whether or not to flush money down the toilet. If you think its not the role of the government to prevent you from flushing your money down the toilet, I guess there is an argument to be made. But there is no logical reason to support Bachmann’s position beyond that.

  16. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 03/29/2011 - 02:55 pm.

    @#4 – Alec:
    Is there mercury in *Mercury? LOL.

    @#12 – That was a good one, Dan!


    Regarding Ms. Bachmann and Republicans in general …

    Has anyone noticed that their two favorite words are “repeal” and “ban.” These politicians want to either:

    a) repeal bills or other politicians they don’t like … or …

    b) ban groups (eg. unions) or organizations they don’t like, eg.Family Planning clinics.

    After they have done all of that, they have the scruples to call themselves “conservatives.”

    But then again, a wise man named Benjamin Disraeli once said:
    “Conservatism discards Prescription, shrinks from Principle, disavows Progress; having rejected all respect for antiquity, it offers no redress for the present, and makes no preparation for the future.”

  17. Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 03/29/2011 - 07:56 pm.

    I live in a house built in 1917. The problem for me is that the older wiring in the upstairs of my house does not handle fluorescent bulbs. I am going to have to be one of those hoarders.

    In addition, I have a variety of light fixtures which also do not handle the fluorescents–the bulbs don’t fit into the fixtures. I haven’t checked the new LED lights to see if they would fit–or work.

    I personally think that city lighting–buildings, parking lots, neon signs, etc.–is much more of an energy drain then the amount of lighting I use in my house.

    And yes, I did break a fluorescent bulb in the house once–spent a lot of time trying to figure out how best to dispose of it. The fact that mercury is allowed in the bulbs is kind of crazy if you ask me. We create a problem within a solution.

  18. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/30/2011 - 11:01 am.


    Frankly your complaints don’t make much sense. The old wiring you house irrelevant since CFLs draw much fewer amps or watts than regular bulbs. CFL’s strain you wiring much less than standard bulbs. While the wide base of CFLs dose make them difficult to fit in some lamps, the vast majority of fixtures can accommodate them just fine. The amount of mercury in a CFL is rather small, just vacuum it up, wear a mask maybe. If you’re breaking bulbs all the time, you probably have a bigger problem than your bulbs.

  19. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 03/30/2011 - 02:42 pm.

    To anyone who thinks that CFL bulbs won’t fit or have harsh light needs to see how much things have changed since CFLs were first introduced. They are now making bulbs in many different shapes and sizes to accomodate lamps and tight spaces, and there are various soft-light options available. The price of the bulbs has also gone down significantly in the past few years. Take a trip to Menards and look around before you start hoarding the old bulbs.

    I also want to point out the electricity use is something that can be objectively measured. I realize that fact (or facts generally) won’t stop Michelle Bachmann from questioning whether there is any savings, but the claims that CFL bulbs (and other new bulbs) use less electricity is something that can be and has been conclusively proved.

  20. Submitted by Terry Hayes on 04/01/2011 - 01:57 pm.

    Michelle, savvy politician, understands that the surefire way to get elected is to be swept into the White House on the tsunami of popular passion over light bulb types. If I were Michelle, I would avoid mentioning the word ‘bulb’ at all.

  21. Submitted by Mike Naas on 04/10/2011 - 10:40 am.

    Our government should limit its role to essential services only. I agree with the principle idea that Bachman is putting fourth regarding consumers and the free market system. We voters, including me, are guilty of allowing our government to become far too large and bloated. We need bold new leadership that cuts the size of government back to only it’s constitutional role. This includes keeping government out of the subject of light bulbs we buy and many other similar private industry matters that are voluminous in quantity, intrusiveness and wasted government resources. We the voters are at fault if we allow any politician to over spend or create more intrusive government. We need our elected officials to fix the budget and stay focused on the fundamentals of government role and defund/cancel all other programs. Let private industry and consumerism handle the rest. The debate needs to be about the fundamental needs we can afford government to provide. I applaud any politician, including Bachmann, who is working to reduce the size of intrusive government and return to fiscal responsibility. Light bulbs are not the only example of government intrusiveness into areas where they have no business being involved. Another good example are sports stadiums. I consider it government corruption, and extremely bad judgment for Minnesotans to pay for stadiums for billionaire sports team owners and millionaire players when Minnesota is broke and many far more serious fundamentals are unfunded, such as infrastructure. We voters have allowed our officials to behave badly and become intrusive and fiscally irresponsible. When we stop voting for those who overspend and over reach, we will all be better off and will have actual choices on funds to spend on glamorous non-essential amenities because Minnesota again has a positive cash flow. Boldness and cuts to government spending and intrusiveness is what we need and few politicians are providing this kind of leadership. Thank goodness for those few that are.

  22. Submitted by Jim Herbert on 05/03/2011 - 08:48 am.

    I don’t think that I agree with Ms Bachmann on any issue. I am saddened to say that I have to agree with her on this one.

    I have tried to use CFL’s in my shop.
    It is cold in my shop in the winter, even after I turn on the heater.

    The CFL’s I have tried do not operate at -10.
    Not at all. Not even a flicker.

    I am sorry to give Ms Bachmann any more ammo.

Leave a Reply