WHAT TIME IS IT? In a big country like ours, that's a political question, and one that stirs much stronger feelings than the strength of the dollar or the health of the revenue sharing program. It is also an issue that won't go away. On Thursday the House decided by a 211-199 vote not to begin Daylight Saving Time on the first Sunday in March. But those who dislike the fact that daylight time doesn't begin until the last Sunday in April--we are among them--should be encouraged by the closeness of the vote to raise the issue another day.

In the meantime, this is one issue that even President Reagan does not propose to have settled locally. Once upon a time it was: each community had its own time, as close to sun time as the man who set the clock in the tallest steeple could figure. This worked fine when the fastest mode of transportation was the canal boat, but it wasn't very convenient for those who made out railroad timetables. So a century ago, in 1883, the federal government intruded into local affairs and established the system of time zones we have today. Daylight Saving Time was invented later, as an attempt to lengthen the work day in the two world wars.

But the creation of time zones and daylight time didn't still all controversies. Places on the edge of time-zone boundaries, and states like Kentucky and Tennessee, which span them, spawned dozens of disputes. Daylight time was observed in some places and not others, and began on different dates in different communities. Anyone driving through central Kentucky in summertime in the 1950s could easily become hopelessly confused about the time; communities switched back and forth every few miles.

A 1966 law attempted to regularize all this, with limited success. It did not get every state within a single time zone; Kentucky and Tennessee refused, and western Indiana and El Paso, Texas, went their own way. It encouraged states to observe daylight time, but Arizona, Hawaii, Indiana (the part in the Eastern time zone) and, for a while, Michigan refused. It did set uniform dates for beginning and ending standard time (though an amendment to the bill that failed in the House would change that).

Even so, our behavior has become more regular than our clocks. From the Atlantic west almost to the Rockies, we all do things simultaneously, even if our clocks show different times. People at their desks on the East Coast at 9 a.m. know that their counterparts in Chicago, in the Central Time Zone, have gotten there by 8; local news, televised in Washington at 6 p.m., is seen at 5 in St. Louis. So time remains a heated issue. Here in the East we would like to see daylight time start earlier because the sun rises and sets inconveniently early in March and April. But Rep. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) doesn't want his constituents to have to go to school and work in the dark in those months. So even after 100 years we fight and refight these battles. What time do you have?