On Sunday, Americans get to once more take part in one of our most vexing temporal rituals: Our clocks “spring forward” by an hour to enter daylight saving time, or DST. Then begins the countdown until the fall, when, with winter’s chill creeping in and the days already shortening, we are forced to “fall back,” exchanging an extra hour of sleep for months of darkness and sadness.
But imagine a world, if you will, where this nonsense is considered a relic. A world — nay, a utopia — where the entire year is spent in daylight saving time’s warm embrace. This is a world that is possible. Congress is just getting in the way. Well, Congress and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Sort of.
You see, time is a fickle, confusing mistress, prone to all sorts of distortions and complexities. It squashes and shrinks, dilates and expands, until your only indicator of how much of it has passed is Netflix asking, “Are you still watching?” in that tone that manages to imply derision despite its neutral word choice.
This malleability of time is felt especially hard in the United States, where the available daylight hours vary depending on your location and the time of year. That lack of consistency led the railroads in the U.S. and Canada to agree in the late 19th century to a standard set of time zones, adopting the four time zones that most of you reading this grew up learning via commercials for TV shows that aired at 8 p.m. Eastern/9 p.m. Central. (I assume that these commercials were for 8 p.m. Pacific/9 p.m. Mountain on the West Coast, but don’t quote me on that.)
Then, in 1918, as the U.S. was busy with World War I, Congress took over, seizing the power to regulate the hours of the clock for the federal government. In theory, the Standard Time Act was all about saving energy, giving Americans an extra hour of daylight to work with in the summer, not to give farmers more time to work, like you may have heard. (Farmers actually hate DST.)
Daylight saving time was repealed at the federal level not long after the war ended. The relative chaos that ensued led Congress to step back in 1966 with the Uniform Time Act, which made DST the law of the land. The last time Congress shifted the length of DST was within my lifetime; in 2007, it moved the start back from the first Sunday in April to the second Sunday in March and pushed the end up a week to the first Sunday in November.
States are allowed under federal law to choose whether they stay with standard time throughout the summer months. (Right now, the only mainland state that completely rejects DST is that maverick Arizona.) They just have to get it cleared through the Transportation Department.
But the reverse, choosing to stick with daylight saving time throughout the year, is totally illegal. All because those time bandits in Congress, who have apparently never heard of the 10th Amendment, refuse to grant the states the power to determine whether it’s 1 p.m. or 2 p.m. inside their borders.
That hasn’t stopped some states from passing legislation in anticipation that Congress might some day let slip its grasp on time. Per the National Council on State Legislatures, 15 states — Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and Wyoming — have laws or resolutions on the books that would implement year-round DST once given the congressional greenlight.
And, as with so many problems facing Congress, legislation has already been proposed to fix it. In this case, the primary advocate is Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Rubio is the primary sponsor on the Sunshine Protection Act, which would basically make DST into the new standard time. It might also be one of the most bipartisan bills in the Senate, with senators as far apart ideologically as Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., serving as co-sponsors.
Now, you may ask, what is the actual effect of year-round DST? Is there anything to gain as far as energy savings? Or safety — there has to be some kind of safety issue for it to be such a big deal. Surely, there must be some reason people care about this so much. The answer is, well, not really on any of those fronts!
Or at least, there’s nothing documented that can be really said to sway things one way or another, according to the Congressional Research Service. (The U.S. did try a pilot of year-round DST in 1974 to 1975, but it axed it, at least in part because parents weren’t pleased about having their kids wait for the school bus in the dark.)
Which brings us back to the Transportation Department. The last time the House was interested in a DST switcheroo in 2018, the Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to Secretary Elaine Chao, asking for an update on whether there was any new info on the costs of the twice-yearly handoff between standard and daylight savings time. Chao responded that there wasn’t but that her staff had “initiated a literature review of this issue,” promising that “once completed, we will share the results of this review.”
Three years later, nothing from the Transportation Department has made its way to Congress. I asked the department Thursday whether that review was ever completed, whether it was ever actually begun and whether there’s an updated timeline for its completion.
“The Department continues to look into this issue,” a spokesperson very helpfully informed me. (I’m not saying that Time Lord Pete is hoarding secrets because he’s covetous of his control over wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff over there, but …)
Now, my editor is telling me that since this is an opinion column — and not just a “here’s something interesting!” column — I actually have to take a stand on this. So, sure, let’s give this year-round DST thing another try, I guess. Whatever.
In all seriousness, this may be one of the most low-stakes things that Congress has on its agenda, so I can see why this makes it a super-appealing thing for senators to talk about. And the idea of no longer changing clocks is popular: An AP-NORC poll from October 2019 showed that 71 percent of Americans want to stop changing clocks biannually. (That same poll, though, showed that 40 percent wanted year-round standard time and 31 percent prefer DST to be the norm. So … take that as you will!)
Honestly, the changeover matters less and less as far as convenience, as far as physically changing clocks, goes — most of us these days rely on our phones, which change over automatically. There are literally hundreds of things Congress could be working on instead. But if it makes lawmakers feel more powerful, they really could use some bipartisan wins on the Hill. If it involves picking a fight with the sun, more power to them.