08/13/2013 09:40 am ET Updated Oct 13, 2013

I Don't Get the Ceiling Fan Battle

Most of the country has been suffering through record-breaking heat waves, but Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) doesn't want Americans to save money when we cool down. She is leading a House Republican attack on efficiency standards for ceiling fans that would help reduce our electric bills and cut down on dangerous pollution.

It seems like a misguided effort. Every political strategist knows that in order to mobilize people, you need a villain, a victim, and a hero, but I can't find the victim of ceiling fan standards.

Representative Blackburn, who is this hurting? Is there a large constituency who wants to pay more for electricity every month? Are there many voters who get riled up over ceiling fans? Am I missing something here?

Blackburn claims the ceiling fan standards epitomize the Obama administration's overreach. She warns about "regulatory tentacles" and government officials "coming after our ceiling fans." That may stir partisan passion, but the fact is the standards were proposed under President George W. Bush. They fit squarely within a three-decade long effort to make American appliances perform better using less energy -- an effort that has been carried forward by Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

This long-standing commitment to efficiency standards is the reason why today's refrigerators need less than a third of the electricity that our grandmothers' big avocado versions did in the 1970s. They are why the latest TVs are at least 50 percent more efficient per square inch of flat screen than the one you bought four years ago. And they are why we pay less to power more appliances and gadgets than our parents did.

Efficiency standards have kept companies at the forefront of innovation. NRDC's MacArthur Genius Award Winner David Goldstein found that when manufacturers retool assembly lines to meet efficiency standards, they identify additional opportunities to improve performance and cut costs for them and their customers.

In the end, this is what will resonate with voters. Americans like to save money. My Republican relatives certainly do -- I was raised on lay-away. My family members don't like the idea of government regulation in the abstract, but they would be happy to know the next time they buy a new fan they will find models that reduce their electric bills.

And models that run better. Most American consumers want the latest and greatest. Few people say, "I wish I could get the air conditioner from 20 years ago and the dishwater from the last decade, even though the technology has advanced and the money savings are better now." When I redid my kitchen last fall, I didn't ask for a 1950s stove. I wanted a new one, and I don't think that has anything to do with party affiliation.

Representative Blackburn may think she is representing ideological purity when she takes on ceiling fan standards, but the virtues of cost-savings and optimal performance appeal to members of all parties. Few voters are going to declare, "I want to pay more in electric bills."

Energy efficiency embodies the bedrock American values of resourcefulness, ingenuity, innovation. It also provides our best weapon against climate change. After all, the cleanest and cheapest form of energy is the one you don't use in the first place. America has already saved more energy from efficiency improvements than we produced from all our new power plants, gas wells, and oil fields since 1973. We can save far more -- and keep more dangerous carbon pollution from our air -- by making our appliances and homes do more with less energy.

Climate change may not matter much to Representative Blackburn (although she should since her state has been dealing with some pretty extreme weather events) but it does matter to millions of Americans who have been hit by destructive fires, oppressive heat waves, and costly floods.
People want to shield their communities from these threats. The Benson Strategy Group recently polled young voters of both parties and found that 79 percent said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who supports President Obama's climate action plan than someone who does not.

Representative Blackburn is free to attack a solution that will save Americans money and help curb climate change, but I still can't help wonder: Why would she want to?