The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Clock runs out on efforts to make daylight saving time permanent

Daylight saving time was created to make better use of sunlight during the summer. But as days get shorter in winter, many people experience depression. (Video: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)
9 min

Early this Sunday morning, Americans will engage in the annual autumnal ritual of “falling back” — setting their clocks back one hour to conform with standard time.

If some lawmakers had their way, it would mark the end of a tradition that has stretched for more than a century. But a familiar story unspooled of congressional gridlock and a relentless lobbying campaign, this one from advocates that some jokingly call “Big Sleep.”

A bill to permanently “spring forward” has been stalled in Congress for more than seven months, as lawmakers trade jabs over whether the Senate should have passed the legislation at all. House officials say they’ve been deluged by voters with split opinions and warnings from sleep specialists who insist that adopting permanent standard time instead would be healthier, and congressional leaders admit they just don’t know what to do.

“We haven’t been able to find consensus in the House on this yet,” Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) said in a statement to The Washington Post. “There are a broad variety of opinions about whether to keep the status quo, to move to a permanent time, and if so, what time that should be.”

Pallone, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce committee that oversees time-change policies, also said he’s wary of repeating Congress’ previous attempt to institute year-round daylight saving time nearly 50 years ago, which was quickly repealed amid widespread reports that darker winter mornings led to more car accidents and drearier moods.

“We don’t want to make a hasty change and then have it reversed several years later after public opinion turns against it — which is exactly what happened in the early 1970s,” Pallone said.

With lawmakers having hit the snooze button, there is little chance of the legislation being advanced during the lame-duck period that follows next week’s election, congressional aides said.

The bill’s quiet collapse puts an end to an unusual episode that briefly riveted Congress, became fodder for late-night comics and fueled water-cooler debate. The Senate’s unanimous vote in March to allow states to permanently shift their clocks caught some of the chamber’s own members by surprise — and in a reverse of traditional Washington dynamics, it was the House slowing down the Senate’s legislation.

Key senators who backed permanent daylight saving time say they’re mystified that their effort appears doomed, and frustrated that they will probably have to start over in the next Congress. At least 19 states in recent years have enacted laws or passed resolutions that would allow them to impose year-round daylight saving time — but only if Congress approves legislation to stop the nation’s twice-per-year time changes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“This isn’t a partisan or regional issue, it is a commonsense issue,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who co-authored the Sunshine Protection Act, which passed the Senate in March, said in a statement. Senate staff noted that a bipartisan companion bill in the House, backed by 48 Republicans and Democrats, has been stalled for nearly two years in an Energy and Commerce subcommittee chaired by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

“I don’t know why the House refuses to pass this bill — it seems like they are rarely in session — but I will keep pushing to make this a reality,” Rubio said, taking a swipe at his congressional counterparts.

Rubio and his colleagues’ gloomy mood this fall is a stark contrast from their sunny celebrations when the Senate abruptly passed their bill two days after the “spring forward” clock change, with still-groggy lawmakers campaigning on it as a common-sense reform.

“My phone has been ringing off the hook in support of this bill — from moms and dads who want more daylight before bedtime to senior citizens who want more sun in the evenings to enjoy the outdoors to farmers who could use the extra daylight to work in the fields,” a fundraising email sent in March by Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) said.

But behind the scenes, the bill’s forecast was almost immediately cloudy.

Some senators told reporters they were surprised the bill was passed through a parliamentary procedure known as unanimous consent, which eliminates the need for debate or an actual vote count if no senator objects to a measure, and wished there had been a more traditional series of hearings and legislative markups. Sleep experts and neurologists urgently cautioned that shifting away from early-morning sunlight would harm circadian rhythms, sleep-wake cycles and overall health. Groups such as religious Jewish people complained that moving the clocks later in the winter would prevent them from conducting morning prayers after the sun rises and still get to work and school on time.

There also are regional differences in who would most benefit from permanent daylight saving time. Lawmakers in Southern states such as Florida argue it would maximize sunshine for their residents during the winter months — but some people who live in the northern United States or on the western edge of time zones, such as Indianapolis, would not see the sunrise on some winter days until after 9 a.m.

And in the House, lawmakers and staff working on the issue pointed to surveys that show deep divides in public opinion about how to proceed. While 64 percent of respondents to a March 2022 YouGov poll said they wanted to stop the twice-per-year changing of the clocks, only about half of the people who favored a change wanted permanent daylight saving time, while about one-third supported permanent standard time and others were unsure.

“We know that the majority of Americans do not want to keep switching the clocks back and forth,” Schakowsky said in a statement to The Post, adding that she had received calls arguing in favor of both sides. Permanent standard time advocates don’t want children to wait in dark winter mornings for a school bus; permanent daylight saving time proponents want to help businesses enjoy more sunshine during operating hours, she said.

A congressional aide who has been working on the issue put it more bluntly: “We’d be pissing off half the country no matter what,” said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss internal deliberations.

The White House has avoided taking a position on the legislation, and in interviews, administration officials said the issue was complicated and affected matters of trade and health.

Pallone and other lawmakers have said they’re waiting on the Transportation Department, which helps govern enforcement of time zones, to review the effects of permanently changing the clocks. While the transportation agency in September agreed to conduct a study, the due date for that analysis — Dec. 31, 2023 — suggests that the issue may not get serious consideration in Congress again until 2024 at the earliest.

And while the lobbying efforts around clock changes pale next to the tens of millions of dollars spent by advocates for so-called Big Pharma or Big Tech, some congressional aides joke that the debate has awakened “Big Sleep”: concerted resistance from sleep doctors and researchers who issued advocacy letters that warned against permanent daylight saving time, traveled to Capitol Hill to pitch lawmakers on permanent standard time instead and significantly ramped up their lobbying spending, according to a review of federal disclosures.

For instance, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, or AASM — which in recent years had focused its advocacy on issues such as improving care for sleep apnea — this year included new priorities in its federal filings: lobbying lawmakers on the Senate’s Sunshine Protection Act and “issues relating to seasonal time changes.”

AASM also nearly doubled its lobbying spending from $70,000 in the third quarter of 2021 to $130,000 in the third quarter of 2022. A lobbyist who joined their team this year specializes in health-care issues and used to work for Schakowsky.

The daylight saving time debate roused the sleep-medicine academy’s attention, an official confirmed.

“When the Sunshine Protection Act was passed by the Senate last spring, we determined that advocacy for the establishment of permanent standard time needs to be an immediate priority,” Melissa Clark, the AASM’s director of advocacy and public awareness, wrote in an email.

Clark added that AASM had met with the offices of dozens of legislators to advocate for permanent standard time. “It’s an issue that is relevant to everyone,” she wrote.

It’s also an issue that resonates abroad. Mexican lawmakers passed legislation last month to end daylight saving time in most of their country, a measure that the nation’s president swiftly signed into law.

But not everyone agrees that a change — any change — is necessary.

Josh Barro, a political commentator who has repeatedly argued to preserve the current system, said that neither permanent daylight saving nor permanent standard time make sense.

“I think we have the system we have for good reason … we have a certain number of daylight hours in the day and it’s going to vary depending on the axial tilt of the earth. And we need a way to manage it so that we wake up not too long after sunrise on most days,” Barro said. “It’s really the government solving a coordination problem.”

Beth Ann Malow, a neurologist and sleep medicine researcher at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, stressed that she continues to favor permanent standard time, a position she testified about in a congressional hearing earlier this year. But even Malow says that the United States may end up needing a compromise — moving the clock by 30 minutes, and then staying that way permanently.

“I know that the permanent standard time people and the permanent daylight saving time people will be disappointed because they didn’t get what they wanted, and we will be out of sync with other countries,” Malow said. “But it’s a way to stop going back and forth.”