It’s that time again: Congress debates adopting year-round daylight savings

‘We have the power to change time itself,’ lawmaker says

Congress has a long history with daylight saving time. Above, a worker adjusts the hands of the Car of History Clock in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall in 2019.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Congress has a long history with daylight saving time. Above, a worker adjusts the hands of the Car of History Clock in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall in 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 9, 2022 at 2:20pm

Our clocks will once again “spring ahead” one hour this Sunday as daylight saving time begins. But if some in Congress have their way, there won’t be a “fall back” in November.

The congressional debate over changing our clocks twice a year has come up like clockwork every March for the last few years. After being pushed most aggressively recently by Sunshine State Sen. Marco Rubio, who backs permanent DST, this year a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee took a shine to the perennial topic with a hearing Wednesday.

“I was pretty surprised that we have the power to change time itself,” said Consumer Protection and Commerce Chair Jan Schakowsky, referring to a vote on the topic held earlier in her career.

Daylight saving time means more sunlight in the evening; standard time means more sunlight in the morning. If you hate when you have to start trying to wake up in the dark, you probably prefer standard time. If you hate when you start leaving work in the dark, you’re more likely Team Saving Time.

We “spring ahead” an hour to daylight saving time every second Sunday of March and “fall back” to standard on every first Sunday of November. Each turn of the clock shakes our circadian rhythms, inspiring a fresh set of familiar complaints and jokes.

The U.S. first adopted daylight saving during World War I to reduce energy consumption, and it implemented a year-round DST during World War II for the same reason. Congress further tweaked the DST rules in 1966, when it allowed states to opt out of daylight saving (but not adopt it full time), and in 2005, when it extended daylight saving time on both ends (most notably moving the “fall back” to after Halloween to allow more sunlight for trick-or-treating).

Wednesday’s hearing had three witnesses, each arguing for a different option: University of Washington law professor Steve Calandrillo illuminated the benefits of permanent daylight saving time; Dr. Beth Malow, a sleep researcher at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, prescribed sticking with standard time year-round; and Lyle Beckwith of the National Association of Convenience Stores argued for keeping the current clock-changing system in place.

The last time the U.S. went to “permanent” DST was during the 1973-74 OPEC oil embargo, which Calandrillo credited with saving 150,000 barrels of oil that year. With U.S. crude oil prices spiking in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent ban on U.S. imports of Russian oil, extending daylight saving time might seem like an easy way of helping Americans save at the pump.

But the data on daylight saving time’s energy conservation is mixed. When previously abstaining parts of Indiana made the jump to saving daylight in 2006, residential electricity demand went up. (Besides, the U.S. imported about 200,000 barrels of Russian oil per day last year.)

Further muddling the energy analyses are energy efficiency improvements in heating, cooling and lighting. Daylight saving’s longer afternoons should mean less lighting demand, but it also means increased air conditioning demand before summertime sunsets and more heating needs during winter mornings. After Congress expanded DST in 2005, the Department of Energy estimated it reduced total energy consumption by 0.02 percent.

Calandrillo also argued that pushing off the evening gloam would reduce lawbreaking by literally shining more light on criminal activity.

The sleep disruptions caused by the clock changes cause negative health effects. There are more heart attacks in the week after each shift than usual, for example. So, ending the biannual shift in either direction would be good for our health, said Malow, but standard time would be particularly good for our sleep.

“It’s called standard time because it lines up with our natural biological rhythms,” she said.  

In her written testimony, Malow noted that the average school start time in the U.S. is 8:03 a.m. and the median U.S. work arrival time is 7:55 a.m. Extending DST into the winter and early spring would mean more of the nation’s children and commuters would drag themselves to their respective places of drudgery in darkness every morning. That messes with our sleep, which leads to all sorts of health problems.

Congress ended its last experiment with year-round daylight saving time early in large part because parents complained about sending their kids out in the predawn dark.

The issue doesn’t fall down any familiar party or geographic lines, and Congress seems split for now on the merits of the various options. Rubio’s bill to make DST the norm has 16 cosponsors, nine Republicans and seven Democrats. The House companion is one of the very few bills that both progressive champion Rep. Jamie Raskin and far-right darling Rep. Lauren Boebert could likely ever cosponsor.

Other bills would allow states to adopt year-around DST, like Florida and several others want. 

The House Energy and Commerce chairman, Frank Pallone of New Jersey, said he agreed with the 71 percent of Americans who said in a 2019 poll that they want to stop switching their clocks twice a year, whichever way you decide to go.

“I have yet to decide whether I support a permanent switch to standard or daylight time, but I do think it’s time to stop changing the clocks,” he said.

The full committee’s ranking member, Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, tut-tutted the subcommittee for wasting time on such a marginal matter. “There are many issues that this committee should be prioritizing before daylight savings, like unleashing American energy to help Ukraine and counter Russian aggression,” she said.

But her fellow Republican, subcommittee ranking member Gus Bilirakis of Florida, said he was happy to hold the hearing. “This is a topic I continue to hear about back home from my constituents,” he said.

Pallone and Rogers both said they intend to ask the Department of Transportation to evaluate the proposed changes to daylight saving time.