The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congress weighs permanent daylight saving time in a debate as regular as clockwork

Nearly two-thirds of Americans want to stop shifting their clocks twice a year, according to polls

(Elise Amendola/AP)
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A congressional panel on Wednesday debated whether to end the nation’s “spring forward” and “fall back” daylight saving policy, citing the health effects of shifting the clock twice per year. Most agreed it was about time.

On Sunday, people in most parts of the United States will set their clocks ahead one hour so that darkness falls later in the day, a seasonal shift that is enforced by the federal government and will be reversed on Nov. 6. But more than 40 states, including Maryland, are considering changes to end the shifting, and federal lawmakers are weighing legislation that could make daylight saving time permanent.

Health groups including the American Academy of Sleep Medicine have called for an end to the shifting, which was first adopted in the United States a century ago. Daylight saving time has since been revised repeatedly by lawmakers trying to strike the right balance, including a short-lived effort to make it year-round in response to the 1970s energy crisis. A pair of experts at Wednesday’s hearing, convened by the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on consumer protection, also testified that the twice-per-year disruption hurts sleep, is linked to cardiac problems and presents other health and public safety risks.

“There is clear evidence that going back and forth not only affects adults with [more] heart attacks and strokes but also affects our kids, particularly with teen sleep deprivation,” said Beth Ann Malow, a neurologist who serves as director of Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s sleep division.

Malow said essential workers and students are the most vulnerable to health and sleep problems, and warned that the time shift means people may be waking up to commute in dark hours.

“There’s going to be more car accidents on the Monday following this Sunday switch, and it’s because we’re going to mess up people’s sleep cycles,” University of Washington law professor Steve Calandrillo, who also testified at the hearing, predicted in an interview.

But while the experts sounded alarms about the clock change, they split on the right fix. Calandrillo argued that the nation should permanently adopt daylight saving time to capitalize on as much light as possible in the early evening, while Malow argued for a permanent shift to standard time, saying that moving the clocks earlier throws off the body’s natural responses to light.

Daylight saving time “is like living in the wrong time zone for almost eight months out of the year,” she testified, citing research into circadian rhythms and release of hormones such as cortisol.

Meanwhile, a retail industry group argued to preserve the current policy, saying the existing “balancing act” provides significant economic benefits — with people more likely to shop during the extra daylight hours — and suggesting that some of the health fears are exaggerated.

“Every Sunday or Monday, the majority of your colleagues are returning from their districts,” testified Lyle Beckwith, senior vice president for government relations at the National Association of Convenience Stores. “They’re returning with one, two, three hours of sleep deprivation. … So if setting the clocks ahead one hour is dangerous, flying East is deadly.”

The hearing was intended to gather information ahead of possible legislation, lawmakers said, with Democrats and Republicans both signaling their interest in changing the policy and citing public support for doing so. Nearly two-thirds of Americans want to stop the twice-per-year clock change, according to an Economist/YouGov poll in November 2021.

“We heard today … that changing our clocks twice a year severely impacts our health,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), who chairs the committee. “And over the years, the science continues to get clearer that sleep is vital for our health and well-being … I haven’t decided yet if I want daylight or standard, but I don’t think we should go back and forth.”

Pallone after the hearing sent a request to the Transportation Department, which enforces the federal Uniform Time Act first enacted in 1966, asking for an analysis of the effects of changing the clocks. That analysis was promised in 2018 but never delivered to Congress, according to a letter Pallone’s office provided to The Washington Post.

Congress’s treatment of daylight saving time has sometimes been played for a joke, such as on HBO’s “Veep,” where an ambitious backbench lawmaker made ending it his top policy issue.

“The daylight saving time-loving bureaucrats have been punching a clock, on the taxpayers’ dime, for too long,” the fictional Rep. Jonah Ryan said at one rally. “Well now it’s time for me to punch a clock — with a hammer.”

But the issue is building real-world momentum, with lawmakers and analysts insisting that an end to the shifting is overdue. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) last year reintroduced a bipartisan bill to make daylight saving time permanent, a position shared by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chairs the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“My wife actually called it a ‘big little issue.’ … It affects everyone,” said Jim Reed, who directs energy issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures and has studied the policy, noting that 28 states are considering 68 different pieces of legislation that would address daylight saving time. “It does seem to be bipartisan, both at the congressional level and at the state level.”

While states can choose to adopt permanent standard time — as Arizona and Hawaii have done — it would take an act of Congress to allow states to adopt permanent daylight saving time, a fact that has repeatedly astounded lawmakers over the years.

“I was pretty surprised we had the power to change time itself,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who led the hearing, referencing her discovery at a years-ago vote on daylight saving time.

While Congress may control time, lawmakers and witnesses were still bound by it. Schakowsky paused the hearing for 33 minutes so members could cast votes on other issues, and she instructed witnesses to mind an on-screen alert “that will count down your remaining time.”

Some GOP lawmakers didn’t like how Congress was spending its time, arguing that Democrats should have focused first on the Ukraine conflict, inflation and other concerns.

“There remain many issues that this committee should be prioritizing before daylight saving, like unleashing American energy to help Ukraine and counter Russian aggression,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), the committee’s top Republican.

But for 115 minutes Wednesday, the attention of dozens of lawmakers was mostly trained on the clock.

“This hearing could not be more timely,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), referencing Sunday’s time shift and the effect on small businesses, the economy and public health.

Sleep experts have encouraged Americans to gradually adjust their sleep ahead of this weekend’s shift to daylight saving time, saying that moving bedtimes forward 15 or 20 minutes the next few nights will cushion the one-hour shift scheduled for Sunday in 48 states.

Democrats changed the hearing’s start from 10:15 a.m. to 9:30 so they could leave for an event in Philadelphia in the afternoon, a time shift that caught one witness by surprise.

“Man, I would have loved that extra 45 minutes of sleep,” said Calandrillo, joining the hearing by video from the Seattle area. “I’m on the Pacific time.”

Erin Cox contributed to this report.

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