ONCE AGAIN, it's time for our timeless national brouhaha over daylight saving time.

Once again, a Congressional bill to extend it is arousing passions across America in a strange amalgam of concerns that includes: Halloween vandalism, backyard cookouts, election reform, night blindness, the safety of schoolchildren waiting for the morning bus, railroad timetables, the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin, sales of softball bats, the fact that cows don't know what time it is no matter what time it is, the fact that God may or may not care, a history of something called "time-line creep" and the political fact that no member of the Senate Commerce Committee is from east of the 75th meridian -- a subtle but telling detail, as will be seen.

The bill now in a Senate committee would extend daylight saving time by four weeks, from the last Sunday to the first Sunday in April and from the last Sunday of October to the first Sunday of November.

The Daylight Saving Time Coalition, of which I'm executive director, estimates that members' annual sales would increase about $4 billion with extended DST -- the coalition includes the barbecue industry, nurserymen, fast food and convenience stores, candy and sporting goods manufacturers, and the RP Foundation Fighting Blindness, which speaks for the 400,000 Americans who suffer from retinitis pigmentosa and other diseases known as "night blindness." Further, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey revealed that 69 percent of respondents favor additional weeks of DST.

We are not asking for tax breaks, deferrals or credits, grants, or exemption from Gramm-Rudman. We are just asking everyone to reach down to their wrists and move the hands of their watches.

However, like many issues in Washington, the debate on daylight saving time is two parts emotion, one part substance. Otherwise, how could 153 members of the House have voted against such a compelling measure last October? Then again, the eminent rationality of this proposal has been obvious for more than 200 years and we still haven't enacted it.

In 1784 Benjamin Franklin, then ambassador to France, told Parisian shop owners they could save 96 million candles and one million francs a year by opening and closing their shops earlier, thereby using nature's light more efficiently. Now, France, along with the Soviet Union, Argentina and Spain, is on advance time, another name for DST, year round. Spain and France also go on DST with the rest of Western Europe the last Sunday in March, thus creating a double DST. Tourists visiting Paris in the spring, as well as shopkeepers, reap the benefits of clever Ben's advice.

By 1883, a century after that advice, there were 54 time zones in the United States -- 5 in Connecticut alone! And none with daylight saving. Baltimore was 10 minutes, 27 seconds behind New York; but it also was 6 minutes behind the more westerly Hagerstown, Md. because Hagerstown was a major rail junction and used Philadelphia time. Passengers in a train depot had to be careful to read the clock of the particular railroad they were traveling because different railroads often kept different times in the same station.

When Standard Railway Time was adopted voluntarily across the country on the "day of two noons," Sunday, Nov. 18, 1883, a Tennessee clergyman preached against letting the Louisville & Nashville Railroad "take the place of God's sun." When clocks at the Boston Globe were stopped for 15 minutes to let Standard Time catch up, the religious editor wrote "this is worse than Joshua making the sun stand still." And the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette called standard time a "monstrous fraud" which would alter the city's traditional time by 22 minutes. So Cincinnati, Louisville, Detroit, Pittsburgh and other cities remained on local time.

Many Christian fundamentalists now oppose DST because they feel man is playing with a higher order established by God -- standard time is now "God's Time," and DST is man's impious manipulation of it.

Congress has enacted three major changes in time laws since the 1883 introduction of Railway Time. In 1918, observance of standard time and seven months of DST (between the last Sundays of March and October) became mandatory. During World War II, we had year-round daylight saving again.

In peacetime, until passage of the Uniform Time Act in 1966, counties and states went off and on DST, or chose to observe it at their own pleasure. This resulted in patchwork-quilt time zones like the 35-mile trip between Steubenville, Ohio and Moundsville, W.Va. requiring seven time changes. All travel schedules were published in Standard Time leaving the traveler to make all the necessary adjustments.

In 1966, again under pressure from the transportation industry, Congress decreed that observance of DST must be uniform.

Now the proposal is for a uniform extension. It probably stands an even chance at best of being reported out of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Here's why people object:

The safety of school children: The argument that children waiting on roadsides for schoolbuses would be endangered by dark mornings survives from the ill-advised January-through-October observance of DST during the 1974 Arab oil embargo. That January, sunrises in many parts of Michigan and Kentucky were later than 9 o'clock.

But sunrises and sunsets in April under the proposed law would be equivalent to those from mid-August to mid-September, and who worries about dark mornings on Sept. 15th? Under DST, the darkest school morning of April would still, on average, be lighter by 40 minutes than mornings in early January, which are the darkest of the year. Another perspective: April 2 would be lighter than many fall and winter mornings of standard time: 123 mornings in Seattle, 55 in Mobile.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) argues that the increased evening light and consequent better vision will reduce accidents and save lives. More light at that time of day is especially desirable to counter the lethal combination of alcohol and fatigue which causes the increased number of accidents during the evening hours.

Convenience of farmers: The farmers' argument sounds valid: under the DST clock, his workday, which is governed by the sun, is extended further into the evening, making it hard for the farmer to shop, watch any TV that comes on much earlier than "Miami Vice," and otherwise coordinate with the rest of the world.

For dairymen, going on and off DST is disruptive because it requires a one-hour adjustment in the milking schedule. But more weeks of DST will not increase the number of disruptions from the current two per year, and for the cows, it makes no difference at all, since it's either milking time or it isn't.

More DST may be good news for cattlemen. Department of Agriculture statistics reveal that consumption of hamburger and steak is highest during spring and summer, probably due to more barbecuing. More evening light means more barbecuing, which means increased beef consumption.

Heavy-handed government: The most contradictory argument against DST is that the federal govermnent would unfairly impose its will on the hapless folks who just happen to live on the western edge of a time zone, the source of the most vocal opposition. Those people have sunrises and sunsets about an hour later than people living on the eastern edge.

Apparently, people residing on the eastern edge of times zones have so preferred the later sunsets of their neighbors on the other side of the time line a few miles to the east that they sought to place themselves within the same zone. Since establishment of time zones back in 1918, there have been over 40 changes in boundaries. All but three of these have moved the boundary further west.

The Eastern/Central time line has crept westward, a few counties at a time, to include the rest of Virginia, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, the eastern halves of Kentucky and Tennessee, and most of Michigan and Indiana. A petition to include Chicago in the Eastern zone was denied in 1936, and just last fall, DOT denied a petition to move the line west through southwest Indiana. Distortion of the boundaries is greatest, however, on the Central/Mountain border where the time line has moved in Kansas and Nebraska as recently as the late 1960s.

Pleasing the voters: Although the Senate passed a bill to extend DST in 1976 by a 70-23 margin, the problem with getting the bill out of committee is that all 17 members of the Senate Commerce Committee have major portions of their states west of the theoretical center of the time zone, where opposition tends to be stronger because people there already have a degree of year-round daylight saving by virtue of living so far west. No Commerce Committee senators represent areas east of the 75th meridian, which runs through Philadelphia. This area includes parts of nine states, including all of New England. Those areas are the ones that want more daylight saving most. Republican Sen. Slade Gorton (Wash.) and Democratic Rep. Edward J. Markey (Mass.) are the champions of DST in their respective houses of Congress.

Much as some senators may oppose the extension, they should keep in mind its implications for the uniform poll closing bill the House passed in January. That bill requires nationally uniform poll hours for presidential elections. The 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. times for the East Coast would require a 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule on the West Coast. If, however, the Pacific Time Zone were to remain on DST until after the election, its poll hours would be 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., which is exactly what the uniform poll closing bill calls for.

Under current DST law, the uniform poll closing bill would require two additional weeks of DST for the west coast. The airlines complain that this would mean two weeks of chaos. But if the whole country observed another week of DST in the fall, this disruption would be reduced to one week, except when Nov. 1 falls on a Monday, which will happen in 2004 and 2032.

The fall extension would make November mornings darker than January mornings but only by minutes. It might also reduce the vandalism and violence which increasingly mark Halloween. (Because Halloween is not a federal holiday, Congress cannot solve the problem by moving it to an earlier date.)

The one problem not solved is what to do with trains (and buses) between cities at 2:00 a.m., the hour we fall back to standard time. The modern solution is to stop or slow and explain to passengers that the clock must catch up. Otherwise, passengers down the line will miss the schedule by one hour. (When we go on daylight saving time, the trains arrive an hour late at their first destination after 2 a.m., and once more passengers are irritated.)

The logic of more DST is obvious. Man is basically a diurnal creature, and most economic activity, not surprisingly, occurs during the daylight. By trading an hour of very early morning sunlight for evening sunlight, productivity increases, women feel safer walking out of stores, the night blind see more, and so on.

The problem is, this logic has been obvious for a long time, and we've yet to do anything about it.