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Several years ago, hosting a town meeting back in his Oakland County congressional district, Rep. Joe Knollenberg was prepared to talk about everything from the federal budget to foreign policy. Instead, he found himself being peppered with complaints from irate homeowners protesting a 1992 law requiring the substitution of so-called low-flow toilets for the old 3.5-gallon tanks.
Not only did the toilets cost more, Knollenberg's constituents complained, the 1.6-gallon tanks took several flushes to do the job -- defeating the whole water conservation rationale for the regulation. Knollenberg went back to Washington, launched a jihad to repeal the measure and now says he is just a vote short in a key committee of getting the 1992 law flushed. Not coincidentally, he also started getting lots of media attention.
"We had stumbled on a little thing that demonstrated a larger truth about the excesses of government regulation," says the conservative Knollenberg. Now he is eyeing several other little things that demonstrate the larger thing -- 11th-hour regulations issued by the departing Clinton administration requiring that common household appliances such as air conditioners and washing machines use less energy.
The congressman is considering action under the Congressional Review Act, recently used to overturn the Clinton administration's midnight regulations on ergonomics, to repeal the air conditioning and washing machine rules. But as a first step, he hopes to get the Department of Energy at least to reconsider its own stance. The washing machine regulation is a particularly vivid classic of how government regulation can drive up costs without delivering much -- if anything -- in the way of tangible results.
The announced goal is to reduce energy use by 22 percent by 2004 and 35 percent by 2007. That would be equivalent to taking 3 million cars off the road during the next 30 years, the Department of Energy claims.
That sounds impressive, particularly if you think of the family auto as an agent of the devil. In fact, others point out, the new regulation would result in a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, thought by many to be a culprit in climate change, of less than two-tenths of one percent. Meanwhile, the cost of the average washing machine cost would rise to $670 from $421, or 59 percent, according to the Department of Energy's own calculations.
A group of conservative activists, including Consumer Alert, the Independent Women's Forum and Citizens for a Sound Economy, has filed a petition asking the Energy Department -- now headed by former Sen. Spencer Abraham, another Michiganian -- to reconsider the regulation. They are particularly outraged that while the Bush administration is taking hits for its close ties to industry, the washing machine regulations were actually written by the washing machine manufacturers, in league with several environmental groups.
Their recommendations were adopted wholesale by the Clinton Energy Department, the petitioners say -- including a juicy tax credit to the companies for the sale of each new washing machine. "If such an agreement were made and implemented outside of any federal regulatory context, the Department of Justice almost certainly would initiate antitrust proceedings under the Sherman Act," they assert.
The Energy Department claims consumers will save money in the long run because the appliances will use less electricity. But the Energy Department based its estimates on the assumption that the average household does 392 loads of wash a year -- more than one a day. A poll commissioned by the Mercatus Institute, affiliated with George Mason University Law School, found that more than half of households do five or fewer loads a week, with only 15 percent doing seven or more a week.
It will take a "powerful grassroots reaction" to get the regulators to back down, says Knollenberg. But by continuing to focus on the smaller things, he may one day succeed in making his case about the larger thing -- the tendency of government to intrude into the most remote areas of private life. If low-flow and low-energy washing machines are such a good deal for consumers, after all, what is the need for such regulations in the first place?