Lengthy legislation hides what’s actually in it | Don Brunell

During the next few years, your trusty incandescent light bulbs will become illegal. Didn’t know that?

During the next few years, your trusty incandescent light bulbs will become illegal. Didn’t know that? Don’t feel bad, few people do.

Perfected by inventor Thomas Edison in the 1880s, the incandescent light bulb has been a shining example of American ingenuity and innovation. In fact, the light bulb is the very symbol of a good idea.

Alas, after 130 years of faithful service, the incandescent bulb has been banned by Congress as energy inefficient. Beginning in 2012, 100-watt bulbs will be banned, followed by all others in 2014, although three-way bulbs and some specialty lights will survive – for now.

The little-known provision was tucked into the 882-page energy bill signed into law by President George Bush in 2007. Unsatisfied with the meager market share earned by compact fluorescent lamps and other energy-efficient alternatives, federal lawmakers decided to tip the scales in favor of CFLs.

No matter that many consumers think CFL bulbs are dim, slow to brighten and inconvenient. No matter that CFLs contain mercury and must be disposed of as hazardous waste. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency has published instructions on how to respond if you break one on the kitchen floor.

CFLs and other energy-efficient bulbs are improving. But rather than let market competition spur that innovation, Congress decided to pick a winner on its own. Their reasoning: If you can’t win fair and square, change the rules.

If the ban was such a great idea, one wonders why lawmakers didn’t rush to the microphones to announce it in 2007. In fact, a 2009 survey by Sylvania found that three out of four people were unaware of the provision and fewer than one in five knew that 100-watt bulbs would be banned in 2012.

One wonders what other land mines are being tucked into major federal legislation these days. This has become the era of the mega-bill in our nation’s capitol, with the 2,000-page health-care law and the current energy bill that hit the floor at 1,000-plus pages. At that length, no one knows what’s in them, including the sponsors.

Not long after the controversial health-care bill was signed into law, the Congressional Budget Office announced that it would cost $115 billion more than first thought and, with each passing day, we’re learning about new provisions of the mammoth legislation.

Compare that to the U.S. Constitution, perhaps the most influential political document in history, at just four pages long. Or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, one of the greatest speeches ever written – a mere 271 words.

Voters should cast a cynical eye on legislation that runs hundreds or thousands of pages. Any bill that long inevitably contains hidden provisions that would not survive the light of day.

In the old days, country folks scoffed at the idea of buying “a pig in a poke.” The thought that you’d pay good money for a pig hidden in a burlap sack was simply ludicrous.

Ironically, what seems obvious common sense when spending a few bucks on dinner is totally disregarded when Congress spends billions of our tax dollars in Washington, D.C.

It doesn’t take millions of words to express a good idea. When it comes to federal legislation, less is more.

Don Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business.

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