House rejects efforts to restrict coffee cups and light bulbs in Capitol

The House on Friday rejected separate amendments to spending legislation that would have blocked funding for the use of polystyrene cups and compact fluorescent light bulbs in the Capitol complex.

The two issues, though seemingly minor, have won the attention of lawmakers in recent months even amid high-stakes negotiations to raise the debt ceiling. The debate over coffee cups and light bulbs has laid bare the deep-seated disagreements between Democrats and Republicans in Congress even over the most basic issues.

In a 179-234 vote, House lawmakers turned down an amendment sponsored by Reps. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Jim Moran (D-Va.) to a fiscal 2012 Legislative spending bill that would have banned polystyrene containers in the House’s food services facilities. 

Republicans began phasing out former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) “Green the Capitol” initiative when they won the House majority. That meant bringing back polystyrene coffee cups and containers. 

Democrats have slammed the reintroduction of polystyrene in the House cafeterias. The Welch-Moran amendment was the latest attempt by Democrats to get rid of the containers.

Moran, in debate Friday morning on the House floor, said the House was setting a poor example by deciding earlier this year to allow the use of polystyrene packaging.

“The House should be using recyclable and biodegradable products and should avoid using polystyrene foam packaging,” Moran said. “We should be a model institution for others to follow.”

But Republicans objected, arguing that the amendment would do nothing to stop the use of polystyrene packaging. Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.) said the underlying spending bill does not fund House restaurants, so the amendment would have no effect.

A separate amendment offered by Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) wades into another unexpectedly thorny issue: light bulbs. The amendment would have blocked funding for the use of energy-efficient compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs in the Capitol complex. But the House rejected the amendment in a 130-283 vote.

Thompson argued during debate on the amendment Thursday night that many CFLs are not made in the U.S. and that halogen bulbs meet stringent energy-efficiency standards just as well as CFLs.

“This amendment does not ban energy-efficient bulbs from the Capitol,” Thompson said. “On the contrary, it makes sure that the energy-efficient bulbs that are used are mercury-free and made in America.”

Thompson argued that small amounts of mercury found in CFLs could pose health hazards if the bulbs broke.

But Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) rejected Thompson’s mercury fears late Thursday.

“There has been no proof that these lightbulbs expose people to unhealthy levels of mercury,” Honda said. “This scare tactic is trying to impose fear and is a result of an overblown media report that exaggerated the potential danger.”

Experts say the mercury in CFL bulbs poses little health risk in the event that a bulb breaks. CFLs contain 1/100 of the mercury in a traditional thermometer (though most thermometers now use alcohol instead of mercury). But the EPA recommends clearing the room if a CFL breaks as a precaution. 

The light bulb amendment comes as Republicans in Congress are ramping up their opposition to a 2007 law that mandates energy-efficiency standards for traditional incandescent bulbs.

Such influential conservatives as Rush Limbaugh say the law is an example of federal overreach, arguing that it disadvantages traditional light bulbs in favor of more efficient, but more expensive, CFL and LED (light emitting diode) bulbs.

Environmental and consumer advocacy groups note, however, that the light bulb efficiency standards do not ban traditional bulbs. They also point out that more efficient light bulbs save consumers money in the long run even if they are more expensive at the point of sale.

While a Republican-backed bill to repeal the light bulb efficiency standards failed to garner enough votes for passage in the House earlier this month, lawmakers approved an amendment to Energy and Water spending legislation blocking funds for the light bulb efficiency standards in fiscal year 2012.

But Thompson was one of a handful of Republicans who voted against the GOP-backed bill to repeal the light bulb efficiency standards. Parish Braden, a Thompson spokesman, said the Republican measure “would have caused a significant loss in investment for manufacturers in our district – and a huge loss of jobs to the surrounding communities."