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Backed by former auto shop owner, ‘right-to-repair’ bills pick up steam in Congress, statehouses

U.S. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, a Democrat from Skamania County, has introduced legislation to give Americans access to manuals and tools to repairs things such as electronics, cars and tractors.  (The New York Times)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A bipartisan movement advocating Americans’ right to repair their own phones, cars and tractors is gaining momentum in state legislatures across the country – and now in Congress, too.

Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez, a Democrat who ran an auto repair shop until she was elected last year to represent southwest Washington, has supported two bills that would give consumers and independent repair shops access to the parts, tools and data needed to repair cars at lower costs. She said a trend toward proprietary parts and throwaway products has raised costs and hurt small businesses.

“This is a critical piece of not just supporting the trades, but also who we are as Americans,” she said. “Our cultural heritage is really founded in people that believe in self-sufficiency, that we’re not consumers. We were a nation of producers and we are losing that rapidly. The things that are being made now are increasingly designed to be disposable and not repairable.”

Modern cars and trucks include computers and proprietary parts that have made drivers more reliant on dealerships, rather than independent auto shops and aftermarket part manufacturers that can offer lower costs. Gluesenkamp Pérez gave the example of BMW foregoing dipsticks in its newer cars.

“You’re not supposed to check your oil if you’re driving a new Beemer, I guess,” she said. “You’re supposed to take it to the dealership. And more and more, especially with a lot of emissions controls and things like that, when an engine throws a code, it can stop the entire machine from working, even if it’s not a mechanical problem at all.”

The REPAIR Act, which the Skamania County lawmaker introduced with GOP Rep. Neal Dunn of Florida and two other lawmakers, would require automakers to share the data, tools and instructions needed to repair their vehicles. She said not having those resources hurts small businesses and raises costs for car owners.

“More and more, they’re inventing intentionally complex fastening systems,” Gluesenkamp Pérez said. “Just imagine the world’s most complicated Phillips screw head. You’ve been wrenching on cars for 40 years and here you are, you have to buy another tool. It doesn’t support the consumer’s experience or the material superiority of the machine. It’s just a way of edging out independent repair shops.”

The SMART Act, which she introduced with Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican whose car alarm business helped make him the richest member of Congress, aims to lower the cost of car repairs and insurance after collisions. It would amend patent law so that aftermarket manufacturers could make parts like fenders, quarter panels and doors just 2½ years after a patent is issued. Automakers can enforce those patents for up to 14 years.

Gluesenkamp Pérez said there are also major environmental benefits to fixing products instead of throwing them out, which often creates toxic waste.

Studies have shown that manufacturing a new car can produce more carbon emissions than years of driving an older, less fuel-efficient car. Mining the nickel, lithium and cobalt required to make the batteries that power phones and electric vehicles has been shown to cause pollution and widespread human-rights abuses.

“One of the great tragedies of the environmental movement is that it’s sort of gotten turned into a consumer product and not a lifestyle,” she said. “I really believe that people who fix their own stuff and, you know, can keep their washing machine running for 40 years, I think that’s what environmentalism is really about at its core.”

As is typical of U.S. policymaking, the momentum in Congress has been spurred by legislation at the state level. Lawmakers have introduced right-to-repair bills in at least 20 states in 2023, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit that supports those efforts.

Colorado passed the nation’s first right-to-repair law, limited to electric wheelchairs, in May 2022. A month later, New York became the first state to pass a similar law for electronics.

On March 4, the Washington State House of Representatives passed the Fair Repair Act, which would require electronics manufacturers to share instructions and tools to fix their products with the public. The legislation passed with mostly Democratic support, while State Rep. Joel Kretz of Wauconda was one of four Republicans to support it. The bill, however, was not considered by the state Senate before this year’s legislative session ended.

On April 25, Colorado became the first state to pass a right-to-repair law for tractors and other farm equipment.

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana introduced an agricultural right-to-repair bill in the Senate last year and Gluesenkamp Pérez said she has talked with other lawmakers about introducing similar legislation in the House.

“We really value consumer choice in America, but – especially our agricultural producers – you get so married to one manufacturer, you’ve got a real investment that you can’t afford to change,” she said. “So we’re kind of over a barrel, to put it crudely. And manufacturers are able to, and increasingly willing to, exploit that reliance.”

On March 24, a group of 28 state attorneys general – including Democrat Bob Ferguson of Washington and Republican Raúl Labrador of Idaho – sent a letter calling for federal right-to-repair legislation to the chairs of the House and Senate Commerce committees, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

“As our states’ chief consumer protection and antitrust enforcers, we write to respectfully request that you redouble your efforts in the 118th Congress to pass expansive Right-to-Repair legislation targeted at automobiles, agricultural equipment, and digital electronic equipment to protect our consumers and farmers across the nation,” the attorneys general wrote to Cantwell, McMorris Rodgers and other committee leaders. “The Right-to-Repair is a bipartisan issue that impacts every consumer, household, and farm in a time of increasing inflation.”

The REPAIR Act has been referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, led by McMorris Rodgers. The SMART Act has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.

Despite the bipartisan support for the bills, strong opposition from corporations that stand to lose profits make passing them into law far from certain. Facing pressure from consumers and lawmakers, companies like John Deere, Apple and Samsung recently have announced incremental changes to make repairs easier.

Gluesenkamp Pérez said passing federal right-to-repair laws would require enough grassroots support from across the United States to outmuscle corporate lobbying.

“If you’re busy, if you’re working three jobs, you don’t have time to lobby and tell your representative what would make your life easier, better, more affordable,” she said. “What I really need is for everyday people to reach out to their legislators all across rural America, people who work for a living reaching out and asking their legislators to cosponsor and support these bills.”

The things that are being made now are increasingly designed to be disposable and not repairable.” Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez, House representative