A Case Study in Arguing Against Your Own Interests

“Right to Repair” ought to be a simple, straightforward concept. But when it gets inside the legislative process, all sorts of complications arise.

The background: Large manufacturers want to keep taking your money long after you’ve purchased their product. They do this by severely limiting access to parts and manuals, and by voiding warranties if you try to fix it yourself or take it to an unauthorized repair shop. So you’re locked in to the manufacturer for service and parts, which is always more expensive than DIY or your local technician.

In response, some states have adopted Right to Repair legislation, which requires manufacturers to lower those barriers. The concept is, if you buy something you own it (incredible notion, that) and you have a right to take it outside the manufacturer’s ecosystem.

A Right to Repair bill was introduced by Sen. Chris Pearson in 2018. It got derailed, thanks mainly to a blizzard of testimony from high-priced suits representing the manufacturers. The Legislature passed a stripped-down version calling for, you guessed it, a study committee. That panel did its business in 2019, and produced a mealy-mouthed report that didn’t come to any firm conclusions.

Which brings us to now.

Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, has introduced H.58, a Right to Repair bill specifically aimed at farm equipment. It got an initial hearing last Wednesday before the House Agriculture & Forestry Committee. That hearing was yet another case study in why this common-sense legislation gets all tangled up in outlandish worst-case scenarios and a curious solicitousness for the interests of big business.

The gory details… after the jump.

Kornheiser laid out a strong case for RTR in the ag sector. These days, farm equipment is extremely costly and high-tech. “As technology has become more complex and corporations have become bigger and more consolidated, we have less and less of an ability to repair our things,” she said. Manufacturers want you to stay within their authorized network — even for something as simple as installing a headlight or doing an oil change. Everything is tied into the proprietary software. As Kornheiser noted, if you try to do something, the software will lock up the machine.

In Vermont, the nearest authorized shop is often far away. It can take weeks to get something fixed, and the cost is very high. “Farmers can learn to repair their own equipment,” Kornheiser said. “Repair shops in the community can get the equipment they need to do repairs.” It’s faster and cheaper, it gets farmers back to work more quickly, and it keeps the money in the local economy.

She noted that that notorious hive of socialists, the National Farm Bureau, endorses Right to Repair.

What followed was a distressingly picky series of questions founded in concern for the rights of manufacturers. I heard a lot of reluctance and very little outright support for the bill. That was especially true of a couple of lawmakers with farming in their blood.

Those two were Republican Rodney Graham and Independent-but-might-as-well-be-Republican Terry Norris. Graham is an active farmer, and Norris comes from a farm-heavy community. You might expect them to champion the interests of the little guy. But they seemed more concerned with the interests of big manufacturers. “If you get into computer issues, we don’t have the tools to diagnose that,” Graham said, noting that authorized shops go through a lot of time and trouble to gain expertise. “So I’m not sure what you’re lookin’ for.”

“Definitely we’ll need a lot of discussion on both sides,” said Norris, invoking the verbiage of long, slow legislative death. Modern tractors, “with GPS and everything, they can basically drive themselves. Unless you’re an exceptional farmer, you shouldn’t be messing with it. But it’s a good discussion to have.”

“it’s not just farmers repairing their own equipment,” Kornheiser replied. “It’s a local technician being able to learn on his own.” She later added, “I trust farmers to decide if they have the expertise to tackle repairs.”

There are other farmers (present or past) on the committee, including committee chair Carolyn Partridge, fellow Democrat John O’Brien, and Prog/Dem Heather Surprenant. They seemed more positively inclined toward H.58. But Partridge made no promises of further action; every committee gets far more bills than they can process.

After the hearing, I asked Kornheiser for her assessment. “I have not spent a lot of time in House Ag, so I don’t have a sense of their dynamic,” she said. On balance, she thinks the presence of so many farmers is a plus, and noted that Partridge “is someone who’s gone up against Big Ag before, and I’m confident in her leadership.”

Maybe. But Big Ag’s high-priced lobbyists have yet to have their turn at bat. And when there’s doubt about an issue, the default setting of legislative committees is always to defer action. Especially in this Covid-centric session.

Based on past experience, I tend to be cynical about these things. We’ll see.

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