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‘Right-to-repair’ bills languish as time for congressional action dwindles

So-called right-to-repair laws won’t help consumers but could damage the retailers and manufacturer-authorized repair shops now in business, said a string of Republican lawmakers at a House hearing on Wednesday, while a consumer advocate warned that “repair monopolization” was pervasive in sectors including personal computing, TVs, and agriculture.

“If you can’t fix it, send it to a franchised dealer,” said Texas Rep. Roger Williams, a millionaire who made his fortune in car dealerships. “There’s a pecking order here that works.”

Half a dozen right-to-repair bills are pending in Congress, including the Agricultural Right to Repair Act, sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat. None has seen action in the Senate Commerce or the House Energy and Commerce committees since being introduced.

Like other legislation, the right-to-repair bills would expire at the end of this year, when the two-year congressional session ends, unless there is agreement in the near term to speed a right-to-repair bill into law. The House plans to recess from the end of September until Nov. 14, after the midterm elections, and will adjourn for the year in mid-December.

“Decades of evidence have made it clear that repair restrictions raise costs, hurt small businesses, and encourage waste while padding large corporations’ pockets,” said Maine Rep. Jared Golden. As chairman of a House Small Business subcommittee, he called Wednesday’s hearing to promote legislation “to restrict the ability of large companies to monopolize repair and after-market products.”

Repair restrictions are increasingly common and drive up costs to consumers and entrepreneurs, including farmers, said Golden. “For generations, small farmers have been able to make repairs on the spot and continue working when a tractor or other piece of equipment breaks down.” Today a malfunctioning sensor can shut down a tractor and force a farmer to wait hours for manufacturer-authorized repairs, he said, even though an independent repair shop might be nearby and would charge less.

“There is, in fact, a significant amount of gray when it comes to right to repair,” said Rep. Claudia Tenney, a New York Republican, even if the issue is painted in black-and-white terms. She said right-to-repair laws could jeopardize the well-being of shops now authorized to make high-tech repairs and could even facilitate intellectual property theft by making diagnostic tools and software manuals more widely available.

The Federal Trade Commission voted last year to “ramp up law enforcement against repair restrictions” that limit the rights of consumers and small businesses to fix the products they purchase. Commissioners acted two weeks after President Biden called on federal agencies to encourage competition.

In agriculture, right-to-repair advocates say manufacturers prevent farmers from repairing tractors or other sophisticated equipment. Machinery manufacturers say they block changes to the software that controls tractors because it prevents damage to the equipment. Less than 2% of tractor repairs require a software update, says Deere and Co., the world’s largest farm equipment maker.

Research by the Digital Right to Repair Coalition found that when it comes to mobile devices, enterprise computing, personal computing, and agriculture, “90% of products available today are repair-monopolized,” said Gay Gordon-Byrne, the coalition’s executive director. “We have always had the Big-R ‘right’ to fix our stuff, but we lack laws making repairs practical. The FTC has recently taken actions to remind manufacturers that they cannot tie the business of repair exclusively to themselves. But those actions still do not make it a requirement to sell repair materials.”

Right-to-repair legislation could completely change the business landscape for equipment dealers, said Ken Taylor, chairman of Associated Equipment Distributors, a trade group. Parts sales are a leading source of revenue for dealerships, but many proposals would require manufacturers to sell parts and diagnostic tools to the public at cost. Dealers would have little reason to stock parts in that scenario, reducing local supplies, he said.

“Right-to-repair policies also create enormous liability issues for equipment dealers and manufacturers,” said Taylor. “Permitting access to source code allows end users the ability to modify the equipment. If a tampered tractor causes personal injury or doesn’t meet government regulatory standards, liability could fall on the dealer and manufacturer depending on a state’s product liability laws.”

To read the written testimony from the hearing, click here.

To watch a video of the hearing, click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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