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Published in Providence Business News (September 27-October 3, 1999)

If you spent at least part of your summer vacation lamenting the many stupid things Congress has done over the years, which is only possible if you had quite a long vacation, take heart. Congress is at least considering undoing one of the dumb things it has done.

Our story starts in 1992. The target of zealous senators and representatives was the millions of big toilet flushers out there, wasting billions of gallons of water a year. You know who you are.

While taking away your toilet was a bit much, even for Congress, they took another approach. In 1992 Congress passed legislation requiring that toilets manufactured after January 1, 1994 have a maximum water use of only 1.6 gallons per flush (“gpf” for the engineers out there). Such toilets would be a pale shadow of the luxury 3.5 gpf toilets (the “Big Flushers”) then gracing households.

Congress has previously drawn a bead on shower heads, limiting their flow to 2.5 gallons per minute. Faucets and urinals have also taken a direct hit from a no-nonsense Congress.

To let the public know that it was not just whiling away the time between recesses, Congress put some teeth into this new law. Fines for reselling a Big Flusher on the black market can run as high as $100 per day. (That should cool the ardor of Big Flusher entrepreneurs who may be considering trying to smuggle in toilets from Canada, perhaps by putting junior on it in the back seat of the family station wagon and trying to bluff their way across the border by saying it is a new child safety seat.)

And the Congressional justification for unleashing the regulatory hounds in America’s bathrooms? Conservation, of course. 1.6 gpf is less than half of 3.5 gpf. Ergo, each flush saves 1.9 gallons. Hail to the Little Flusher.

However, there was a small problem. It seems the Little Flusher worked only, well, half as well, as the real thing.

That apparently did not escape consumers’ attention. Complaints finally reached Congress, resulting in proposed legislation by Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) to undo the low flush standards. Congressional hearings were held earlier this summer.

Environmentalists supported the standards, citing demonstrated water savings and dire predictions of future water shortages. Conceding that the first generation Little Flushers may have had a bug or two, they contended that son of Little Flusher was cracker jack.

Not so, countered an experienced home builder who said the low gpf toilets generate so many complaints that he now warns prospective home purchasers up front about the potty problem. A 1998 survey of home builders found 72 percent who said the Little Flusher was a Big Problem. Complaints were heard of the new toilets requiring two flushes to do the job, thereby defeating the purpose, and that same home builder told Congress that some new homeowners put instructions in their bathrooms advising guests how to help flush the toilet with extra cups of water and a plunger.

The plumbing manufacturers opposed the call to a simpler time when the feds didn’t control the water closet, citing the increased risks of conflicting state and local regulation. But perhaps the most sense at the hearing came from members of two conservative think tanks, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (testifying on behalf of the National Consumer Coalition) and the Cato Institute. Both pointed out that similar doomsday scenarios of shortages were also erroneously predicted for energy supplies, and Congress reacted in the same manner by mandating energy conservation manners. And both reminded Congress it was wrong on the energy crisis.

The Cato Institute persuasively argued that appliance standards, such as flush and flow controls, don’t cure the underlying cause of water scarcity, which it sees as artificially low prices for water.

“It was raising prices – not mandating conservation – which ultimately led to increases in energy efficiency in the 1970s and 1980s. The only way to avoid shortages is to rely on free-market pricing and allocations”.

Could it really be that simple – to get government out of our bathrooms we let the free market work?

Let’s find out. Mandatory conservation standards for bathroom appliances should get the Big Flush.

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