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Friday, March 1, 2024
March 1, 2024

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In Our View: Congress should act to ensure right to repair

The Columbian
Published:

The premise is simple — Americans should have the right and the ability to repair their durable goods. Replacing a battery on a cellphone should not require a technical degree or an act of Congress.

But Congress is needed to advance the growing “right-to-repair” movement. Lawmakers should enhance the ability of consumers to repair kitchen appliances or tractors or their cars.

As Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Skamania, has said: “Part of our national heritage is that we can fix things. It’s in our DNA. We used to really own the things we bought — homes, tractors.”

But now, with computer chips being a part of everyday goods and with manufacturers claiming proprietary knowledge, the typical American is out of luck when it comes to fixing things.

“It takes the American consumer from owners to permanent renters,” Perez said. “It hurts the middle class first; it touches every American, whether they know it or not. It’s emblematic of a lot of things that are going wrong in our society.”

Upon being elected to Congress for the first time last year, Perez listed the right to repair as one of her top priorities. She owns an auto repair shop with her husband, which gives her a vested interest in the movement. But it also gives her some insight that many Americans are just now starting to understand.

As columnist Paul Waldman of The Washington Post wrote recently: “There aren’t many issues that unite Democratic, Republican and independent voters, offer a ready-made villain in greedy corporations, and tick off people from all different socioeconomic groups. Which is why the ‘right-to-repair’ movement could gain real momentum, and why any politician looking to demonstrate real populist bona fides — rather than the phony kind — should jump on it.”

New York approved the Digital Fair Repair Act last year. And last month, Colorado passed a right-to-repair law aimed at farm equipment. It prevents manufacturers from withholding manuals or information that would allow independent repair of tractors or combines.

Heavy agriculture equipment is at the heart of the issue. While the rest of us might be inconvenienced when our cellphone battery wears out, for farmers it can be a matter of economic survival. If the tractor breaks down at harvest time and there is a two-week wait for a manufacturer-approved repair, it can mean thousands of dollars worth of lost crops.

Dozens of other states this year are considering legislation allowing consumers to repair their items. As the attorneys general of Indiana and Illinois wrote to Congress: “The Right-to-Repair is a bipartisan issue that impacts every consumer, household, and farm in a time of increasing inflation.”

Because of that, there is hope for congressional action. The REPAIR Act (because Congress loves acronyms, that stands for the “Right to Equitable and Professional Auto Industry Repair Act”) was introduced this year with Perez as an early co-sponsor. And the issue has drawn growing attention from the public and the media.

Not everybody is on board. Critics point out that allowing widespread repair of, say, intricate medical equipment could be a matter of life and death. That is a valid point, but Congress should be able to carve out reasonable exceptions as members consider legislation.

The gist of the issue can be found in the title of a 2022 book written by Aaron Perzanowski — “The Right to Repair: Reclaiming the Things We Own.” Congress should help American consumers do exactly that.

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