The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Permanent daylight saving time: The clock is ticking in Congress

‘Spring forward’ and ‘fall back’ irk many Americans, but they don’t agree on an alternative

The Ohio Clock near the Senate Chamber in the Capitol. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Once again, Americans will set their clocks forward an hour this Sunday — teeing up more evening sunshine but also a few days of confused circadian rhythms, missed appointments and groggy mornings from coast to coast.

And once again, the lawmaker dubbed the “Sun King” is vowing that this can be the year that Congress ends the nation’s much-maligned, twice-yearly time changes.

“Americans want more sunshine in the chilly, winter months, and Congress can deliver that to them,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who got the Sun King nickname after he passed legislation extending daylight saving time in 1985, and again in 2005. Now, Markey is one of the sponsors of a bipartisan bill that would allow states to lock in permanent daylight saving time, enabling them to “spring forward” one final time and never “fall back” again.

The Democrat from Massachusetts acknowledged in an interview that the bill, known as the Sunshine Protection Act and spearheaded by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), faces an uphill battle in Congress this year — but he argues that persistence had changed the nation’s time code before and could do so again.

“My opinion is, honestly, the sun doesn’t have any enemies,” Markey said, adding that moving the clocks forward permanently would enable hundreds of millions of people to enjoy more sunshine later in the day for outdoor activities, shopping and dining.

That prognosis may be on the bright side given Congress’s decades-long fight over daylight saving time — whom it helps or hurts, when it should start and whether the nation should be changing its clocks at all. The battle reached a crescendo last year, when the Senate surprisingly passed the Sunshine Protection Act in a unanimous vote in March. But the bill died in the House amid questions over whether year-round daylight saving time was actually safe or healthy, and also galvanized new energy around what many had seen as a quixotic issue.

It’s led to more spending on lobbyists, for instance, from so-called Big Sleep, the sleep medicine doctors who warn that too much daylight would disrupt our circadian rhythms, and who seek the restoration of permanent standard time — the idea that we should never “spring forward” at all.

“Since the events in Congress last spring around daylight saving time, we have met with the offices of dozens of legislators to discuss restoring permanent standard time, with most of them being open and interested in the issue,” Melissa Clark of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine wrote in an email.

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)

The twice-yearly time change has long vexed Americans, who generally say in surveys that they want to do away with it, but aren’t unified on how to replace it. Studies have also shown a greater risk of heart attacks, strokes and traffic accidents in the days immediately after a time change. According to a 2022 Monmouth University poll, 44 percent of respondents wanted permanent daylight saving time, 13 percent wanted permanent standard time — and 35 percent wanted to stick with the system we have.

The fight has drawn an array of unlikely combatants: school groups fretting about children waiting at dark bus stops, golf course owners who want to maximize hours that players can spend on the links and religious Americans who worry about missing morning prayers before work. The American Medical Association also waded in last November with an endorsement of permanent standard time.

“Committing to standard time has health benefits and allows us to end the biannual tug of war between our biological and alarm clocks,” Alexander Ding, an AMA trustee, said in a statement.

In Congress, meanwhile, it has split traditional coalitions, with partisan politics replaced by regional factions based on where time zones fall.

Northeastern Democrats have joined with Southern Republicans; Californians with Carolinians. The tradition stretches back decades, driven by self-interest — daylight saving time in the winter would favor cities like Boston and Miami more than Indianapolis, which would see sunrise after 9 a.m. — and vexing Midwestern lawmakers like former senator Wendell Ford (D-Ky.), who for years was one of Congress’s foremost opponents of daylight saving time.

“It is just each coast that is in favor of this. The core of this great country apparently is not,” Ford said in a 1985 hearing, jousting with New England lawmakers who had wanted to expand daylight saving time from six to eight months per year.

Markey acknowledged there had been “resistance, especially from some of the farm states” in those earlier battles.

“The rural congressmen were just telling me that the cows want to wake up on God’s time — and I would just tell them that the cows actually don’t have any idea what time it is,” he said. “So no matter what time you tell them that the milking will begin will be acceptable.”

Markey’s side eventually won out: Most Americans now live with daylight saving time for 240 days per year — nearly eight months. (Two states, Hawaii and Arizona, have opted out of the semiannual time changes and remain on permanent standard time.) Nineteen states have also approved measures that would allow them to adopt year-round daylight saving time if Congress passed the bill making it permanent nationwide, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“There’s an amazing political movement built around daylight saving time,” Markey said.

A testament to the change is how when Rubio introduced his bill for permanent daylight saving time in 2018, no other senator was willing to sign on. Since then, he has steadily gained diverse and powerful allies, including Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chairs the committee that controls government funding; and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who leads the finance panel. By 2020, 13 more senators had joined the legislation, and by last year, the bill had 18 co-sponsors.

In the House, Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) had three co-sponsors when he introduced the companion Sunshine Protection Act in 2018. That grew to 23 co-sponsors in 2020 and 48 last year.

Now, Rubio, Markey and other lawmakers say they’re counting on Americans who learned about the debate for the first time last year, or who mistakenly believe Congress ended the time change and are set to wake up tired and frustrated next week, to lean on their representatives.

“This ritual of changing time twice a year is stupid,” Rubio said in a statement. “This Congress, I hope that we can finally get this done.”

Dim prospects this year

But the prospects for the Sunshine Protection Act remain dim: Neither chamber of Congress has a majority supporting the bill, and there is no clear consensus among voters. Key congressional leaders whose committees would need to review the bill remain publicly undecided. Opponents and sleep medicine experts, meanwhile, warn that when Congress actually succeeded in making daylight saving time permanent in the 1970s, it quickly and ignominiously blew up in their faces, forcing them to end the experiment 10 months later.

And after senators used a legislative maneuver last year to pass their bill with no debate or committee review — shocking many of their colleagues and the White House — wary congressional staff say they’re on alert to block such an effort this year.

Meanwhile, a review of daylight saving time policies by the Department of Transportation, which implements federal time zone rules, is not expected to be completed until year’s end; some undecided lawmakers said they planned to wait for that before making a decision on the Sunshine Protection Act.

The political logjam might be best encapsulated by Washington state, whose representatives control the two committees that oversee daylight saving time policy: Sen. Maria Cantwell (D), who leads the Senate Commerce Committee, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R), who leads the House Energy and Commerce Committee. While the Washington state legislature and governor have pushed for permanent daylight saving time, both Cantwell and McMorris Rodgers have declined to take a position, and their staffs were similarly noncommittal about whether the committees would bring the bill up for review.

Marcus Riccelli, a state representative in Washington who sponsored the state’s permanent daylight saving bill, said he had lobbied Cantwell — his former boss — and Murray to pass national legislation, contending the issue transcends politics. “A lot of people say that Congress is a broken clock. Well, this is one thing that could show that it can actually work,” he argued.

Some experts say the nation may have already hit upon the right balance.

David Prerau, author of “Seize the Daylight,” a history of time changes, pointed to the trade-offs and regional differences that complicate consensus. He spoke with House staff last year as they prepared to debate daylight saving time.

“I told them what I’ll tell you: I personally think the current system is — even with its flaws — better than the alternatives,” Prerau said. He cited current research, as well as Transportation Department surveys he worked on in the 1970s. “From what we saw, most people were happy with seven or eight months” of daylight saving time,” he said.

Prerau, who consulted with Markey and other lawmakers in 2005 on daylight-saving legislation, said “there may be better ways” to thrive under the time-change rules we have now.

“One way would be public service announcements a week before the time change,” Prerau said. “… I think a lot of people don’t even know the time change is coming until the day it happens.”