A Call for Congressional Inaction

Commentary by Pete du Pont

John Kenneth Galbraith, of all people, once said, "The State is the kind of organization which, though it does big things badly, does small things badly too."

That, however, has not stopped the State from involvement in a host of matters that would seem to be better left alone.

Consider just two examples: the federal law that says we can't use more than 1.6 gallons of water per toilet flush, and the whole series of laws and proposed laws governing how much gas mileage our cars should get and whether they should have or not have air bags.

There seems to be no end to the possibilities for mischief-making by lawmakers. But one thing they have not been able to accomplish is repealing the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Take the matter of toilet flushing. Setting the capacity at 1.6 gallons was part of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, intended to conserve a host of resources, including water and electricity. But as more and more people buy new toilets, there are more and more complaints that they have to flush two or more times.

The Natural Resources Defense Council says "customer satisfaction surveys show consistently high ratings for ULFTs (ultra-low flush toilets, the term for the 1.6 gallon toilets)."

Apparently, Congressman James Traficant's constituents weren't among those surveyed. On the House floor last year, the Ohio Democrat said, "Americans are flushing, flushing, flushing like mad, wasting more water than ever, recklessly trying to remove all of that void. Mr. Speaker, it has gotten so bad there is literally a black market for the old toilet."

So far, though, Congress is leaving the flush toilet situation alone, for better or worse. However, it is being pressed from some corners to do something about the car mileage situation. It seems that things haven't worked out the way proponents of higher mileage standards envisioned.

Under the Corporate Average Fuel Economy program, known as CAFE, car manufacturers were required to achieve certain minimum fuel economy averages for vehicles sold in the United States beginning with the 1978 model year. The average was 18 miles per gallon in 1978, rising in later years to 27.5 mpg. The program was sold as a way to reduce American dependence on foreign oil.

Opponents of CAFE said it would force car manufacturers to reduce the size of cars, making them less safe and causing more traffic deaths. The opponents also questioned whether the program would reduce gasoline usage or dependence on foreign oil.

The warnings of the opponents were borne out. Studies a decade later showed that CAFE was responsible for 2,200 to 3,900 additional traffic deaths per model year auto fleet. In addition, given the higher gas mileage, Americans drove more miles than before, so gasoline usage rose instead of falling, and gasoline prices dropped. U.S. producers are high cost producers in the international oil market and tend to leave the market when the price of oil falls, so we wound up depending on foreign sources for 50 percent of our oil by 1995, compared to 35 percent in 1974.

Something else happened in the last 25 years or so: people became enchanted with minivans, pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles. All of these were classified as "light trucks" and had a CAFE standard of 20.7 mpg versus the 27.5 mpg for cars. But one of the main attractions of the bigger vehicles was that they were safer than cars. Thus minivans became enormously popular with families.

Safety for the family is good, right? Wrong, according to the Center for Auto Safety and others. They maintain that it isn't fair for some drivers to be safer, and want the lower CAFE standards removed for light trucks. Their argument seems to be, not that everybody ought to be safer, but rather that everybody ought to be equally at danger.

We have the same situation with air bags. They were forced on all cars by law, and then it turned out that sometimes air bags kill people instead of saving them. Now there is a great debate over how to deal with air bags. So far on/off switches for air bags have been authorized, but only under certain conditions and only after both driver and mechanic go through a mass of red tape.

There is something called Jacquin's Postulate on Democratic Government which says, "No man's life, liberty or property is safe when the legislature is in session." If you're going to be writing or calling your representative or senator, maybe your suggestion to him or her should be, "Don't do something, just sit there."

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