by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
A recent court ruling set new limits on the power of federal bureaucrats to impose unwanted mandates on consumer appliances.
In a Jan. 8 decision, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Department of Energy regulators had failed to consider whether their regulations aimed at saving energy would actually work — and, specifically, how people would respond to federal mandates that make it harder for dishwashers to do their job. In the real world, when it takes a dishwasher hours to run through a cleaning cycle, it should be no surprise that many people might opt to hand-wash dishes or run the dishwasher multiple times — consuming even more energy and water than before. The regulators ignored the problem they had created: namely, that their regulations actually created new inefficiencies.
The court also found that the Energy Department had failed to consider whether cycle time was an important characteristic of dishwashers (spoiler alert: yes), even though it should have considered this.
Perhaps most significantly, the court found that the regulators had taken such an expansive view of their own authority that the Department of Energy may have been improperly regulating other consumer appliances for decades.
The trouble started when Energy Department bureaucrats revamped federal regulations to require dishwashers to use less water and less energy than in years past, even though weakening the power of the dishwasher makes dishwashing less effective. To obey those mandates, manufacturers created dishwashers with longer cleaning cycles — lasting more than three hours in some cases. A similar scenario played out for clothes washers and dryers, which now don’t work as well as they used to but do take longer to do the job.
In other words, these regulations dampened a central incentive of appliance manufacturers, namely, to provide products that consumers want. But regulators lack that motivation; sometimes, they act as if they know more about what consumers want than consumers do.