Supply chain bottlenecks have Americans waiting longer for the dishwashers and washing machines they've ordered. President Joe Biden's regulatory onslaught means that consumers will also spend extra time running whatever home appliances they do manage to get their hands on.
Earlier this week, the public comment period ended on the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) proposal to ban "short-cycle" dishwashers and laundry machines, which clean pants and plates much faster but consume more energy and water to get the job done.
These products were legalized under the Trump administration as part of its crusade to undo stifling energy efficiency limits and make America's appliances great again. Dishwashers, in particular, were an issue that provoked the former commander in chief's passions.
"The dishwashers, they had a little problem. They didn't give enough water, so people would run them 10 times, so they end up using more water. And the thing's no damn good. We freed it up," said former President Donald Trump on the campaign trail in October 2020.
His characteristic bravado had a lot of truth to it.
The past few decades have seen the default cycle times of dishwashers more than double—from an average of 69 minutes in 1983 to 140 minutes in 2018—as manufacturers struggle to maintain the cleaning performance of their machines while complying with ever stricter energy standards.
A slower cycle, notes a 2016 DOE report, "allows more time for the smaller volume of water to be circulated within the cabinet, helping to maintain wash performance" while decreasing the use of both water and electricity needed to heat that water.
In 2018, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a libertarian think tank, petitioned the Trump administration's DOE to create a new regulatory product class of dishwashers with a default cycle of less than one hour that would be subject to higher energy and water limits. "This would allow manufacturers to create those [faster] dishwashers and then be able to sell them to consumers," says Devin Watkins, an attorney at the CEI.
The Trump administration proved receptive, finalizing new regulations in October 2020 that exempted dishwashers with a default cycle of an hour or less from energy efficiency standards. The plan was to craft new, lower standards later on. In December 2020, Trump's DOE also created similar, looser product classes for washing machines and driers.
This dishwasher deregulation proved popular with red-blooded Americans.
Some 98 percent of the 2,244 individuals who submitted comments on the Trump administration's rule change supported the idea of legalizing a faster dishwasher product class.
"Please allow more options for dishwashers that actually work," said one commenter. "We waste large amounts of hot water and fuel re-washing dishes that are not clean after the first 2+ hour cycle. It's a complete waste of time and energy."
"IT IS TIME TO WASH AWAY THIS STUPID RULE!" hyperventilated another commenter. "If this type of a rule applied to the space program, we would still be trying to send chimpanzees into orbit!"
Special interest groups were less pleased with the idea of a faster, more effective rinse cycle.
In one regulatory filing, a coalition of environmental groups including the Sierra Club and Earthjustice warned that the legalization of faster dishwashers "threatens to wipe out decades of progress" in energy efficiency.
Trade associations representing appliance manufacturers also came out against the new rule. They argued, paradoxically, that consumers weren't demanding faster dishwashers, and if they were legal, companies would have to invest a lot of money in making the new machines (presumably because people would be interested in buying them).
"Not only would investments in efficiency innovation be stranded, but also new investments would be required in order to design dishwashers that could fall into the new product class," wrote the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers in an October 2019 public comment.
The New York Times published several critical articles on Trump's dishwasher changes as well, alternatively charging that the quick cycle function of existing dishwashers did a good enough job already and that marginally loosening dishwasher standards was a plot by fossil fuel interests.
Watkins says that businesses have an anti-competitive interest in keeping new products off the market.
"They've already designed dishwashers on the market that they're selling right now. They don't want to have to spend the money to redesign dishwashers," he tells Reason. "They would rather the government ban the better dishwasher."
Nevertheless, the Biden administration has decided to take the side of big business in this conflict between industry and individuals.
In August, his DOE proposed to eliminate the short-cycle product class for both dishwashers and laundry machines. It argued in regulatory filings that legalizing these appliances violated "anti-backsliding" provisions of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA) that prohibit the department from loosening energy efficiency standards for existing products.
Watkins, in testimony to the DOE in September, said that the Trump administration didn't violate the EPCA's anti-backsliding provisions because it was creating a whole new product class with its short-cycle dishwashers, not loosening standards for existing products.
The CEI has argued that the DOE, rather than eliminating the short-cycle dishwashers, should complete the unfinished work of the Trump administration and create new energy efficiency requirements for these products. That would let manufacturers know what standards these new products would have to meet so they can get to work designing them.
That doesn't appear likely. The DOE is currently considering the public comments it received. Within a few months, it will likely issue a final regulation once again banning fast, effective dishwashers.
That will suit the interests of incumbent businesses that won't have to invest money in making a better product for consumers. The losers from this whole process are the hardworking American families sitting around the kitchen table, wondering when the dishes will be done.