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Last weekend, Congress passed a trillion-dollar budget bill. Among its provisions, plenty of things not related to spending. One of these so-called riders is aimed at saving the hundred-watt incandescent light bulb. But as NPR's Peter Overby tells us, the move by Republicans is more about politics than light bulbs.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Strictly speaking, the issue is this: Old-fashioned incandescent bulbs waste a lot of energy. So under federal law, they're being slowly phased out. And the first to go, starting on New Year's Day, is that old reliable of home lighting: the 100-watt bulb. But what looked like energy efficiency when President George W. Bush signed to law four years ago now looks like oppressive big government to many conservatives.

REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN: Let me tell you, President Bachmann will allow you to buy any light bulb you want in the United States of America.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

OVERBY: That's Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann on the presidential campaign trail last June. And speaking during a House debate in July, Texas Republican Michael Burgess.

REPRESENTATIVE MICHAEL BURGESS: Consumers should be making the decision as to whether or not they use a 100-watt bulb in their home, not bureaucrats in Washington.

OVERBY: Ultimately, this save-the-bulbs campaign produced the rider in the spending bill. The rider says the Energy Department cannot spend money to enforce the phase-out of 100-watt bulbs - at least not for the next nine months. Here's North Carolina Republican Virginia Foxx last week on the House floor.

REPRESENTATIVE VIRGINIA FOXX: Mr. Speaker, light bulbs are a symptom of the problem with this executive administration and our friends across the aisle.

OVERBY: The rider won plaudits on the right. Frank McCaffrey is a commentator with the advocacy group Americans for Limited Government.

FRANK MCCAFFREY: Congressional Republicans have stood up for American consumers being able to make the choice of what lighting products they wish to use.

OVERBY: But from the perspective of the lighting industry, this rider is several years too late to make a difference, and they don't want Congress changing things now. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association - representing 95 percent of the light bulb industry - spent months giving show-and-tell demonstrations to lawmakers. The association's Joseph Higbee says they would hook up two incandescent bulbs side by side - an old 100-watt using argon gas and a new 72-watt using halogen.

JOSEPH HIGBEE: And you can't tell the difference. We wanted to make sure every congressman and congresswoman understood that they and their constituents would still be able to purchase an incandescent light bulb.

OVERBY: Higbee says the association's member companies long ago started changing their product lines from traditional incandescents to halogens, compact fluorescents and LEDs.

HIGBEE: Delaying enforcement undermines those investments and creates regulatory uncertainty.

OVERBY: Uncertainty: the word that always pops up in debates over regulation. And uncertainty is something that big retailers want to avoid here as well. Jaclyn Pardini is a spokeswoman for Lowe's home improvement stores.

JACLYN PARDINI: Lowe's is committed to abiding by the legislation, and it does not change our plan.

OVERBY: The nation's biggest seller of light bulbs is The Home Depot.

BILL HAMILTON: It really doesn't mean a whole lot to us at the retail level.

OVERBY: That's Bill Hamilton, Home Depot's vice president of merchandising for electrical products. He says the politicians aren't giving consumers the whole story.

HAMILTON: I think one of the portions that's not being told by our legislators is, you know, the importance of really using energy-efficient lamps. You know, up to 20 percent of a consumer's cost of operating their home comes from their lighting.

OVERBY: Besides, he says, this isn't just a question of U.S. production and U.S. policy. Europe, Australia and Canada are also moving away from the old incandescent bulbs, and worldwide production of the old incandescents is shrinking. So far, there haven't been any reported runs on 100-watt bulbs. In fact, Hamilton says demand is up right now for all light bulbs - the old ones and the new ones. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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