IN 5½ MONTHS, the sale of traditional 100-watt incandescent light bulbs will become illegal in the United States. Twelve months later, the same fate will befall most 75-watt incandescents, and one year after that, conventional 60- and 40-watt bulbs will be gone as well. Thomas Edison's world-changing invention is one of the most enduringly popular products ever created -- something so useful, so dependable, and so cheap that over the course of more than a century, consumers bought them by the billions. Yet thanks to a federal law that relatively few Americans knew anything about when it was passed by Congress and signed by George W. Bush in 2007, the familiar light bulb is about to be banned.
Americans certainly know about that law now. On paper, its purpose is to increase energy efficiency by requiring that bulbs produce more light per watt. But by setting the new standards higher than the common incandescent can reach, the law's real-world effect is to deprive most Americans of the freedom to buy the light bulbs they prefer. Instead, they will be forced to spend more money for fragile halogen bulbs or for the swirled compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) that have been around for decades but that most consumers have never wanted buy. (Another option -- so far still legal -- is to stockpile several years' worth of ordinary incandescent bulbs before the federal embargo kicks in.)
The looming ban has stoked grassroots outrage, especially on the right. Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann draws cheers and applause when she tells Republican audiences: "President Bachmann will allow you to buy any light bulb you want." Last week, a bill repealing the light bulb mandates was put to a vote in the House of Representatives; it won a majority (233-193), with nearly every Republican favoring repeal and nearly every Democrat opposed. Since two-thirds support was needed for passage, the 2007 law remains intact.