Let’s hope Washington’s debate over daylight savings time generates as much light as it has heat, because the heat has been plentiful.
On Tuesday, a joint House-Senate conference committee moved to extend daylight savings by two months so that starting in 2007, clocks would spring forward in March, not April, and fall back in November, not October. The idea is to cut the nation’s energy costs amid rising prices — by as much as 1 percent per month. The change would mean sunrise comes a little later in November — as late as 8:30 or 8:45 in much of the country — and lasts a little longer in the afternoon. “This is a huge victory for sunshine lovers,” Rep. Ed Markey, Massachusetts Democrat and co-sponsor, said.
If this sounds uncontroversial, it isn’t. On Thursday the proposal had to be scaled back to a one-month extension of three weeks in March and one in November because so many people opposed it.
The point of daylight savings has always been to economize in times of war and hardship, and the legislation is clearly within that vein. Benjamin Franklin first suggested daylight savings in 1784, when he calculated that Paris could save millions of pounds of candle wax simply by adjusting clocks slightly in the spring and fall. The idea languished until 1916, when the British Parliament enacted “British Summer Time” to economize on wartime fuel and lighting expenses. The United States followed suit in 1918 with its first experiment, but repealed the law the following year. The United States again enacted daylight savings during World War II and after the war the idea began to catch on. Congress passed the Uniform Time Act of 1966 to create a permanent daylight savings time for the entire country. Localities were free to opt out, as parts of Indiana still do.
The current anti-daylight savings lobby is diverse. First were industry groups fearing high adjustment costs, most prominently the airlines. Extending daylight savings would put the United States “out of sync with most of the world’s clocks,” the Air Transportation Association said. It also would disrupt schedules in ways that would make U.S. carriers less competitive. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman agreed, saying the change would create “serious international harmonization problems.”
In Canada, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said, “We’re not anxious to have a disconnect between us and our chief trading partner.” The head of the Canadian Industrial Transportation Association, Bob Ballantyne, said, “For Canada not to follow ssuit would be a big mistake.”
American education groups and some religious organizations are opposed, too. The National PTA told us: “Our concern remains centered on children because of the increased danger of traveling to school in dark hours …. National PTA understands the need to conserve energy; however, it should not be more important than the safety of our school children.” The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism opposes the move because the “unintended consequences” of later sunrises will create hardships for the exercise of morning prayer.
Congress backed off somewhat Thursday, opting for a shorter daylight-savings adjustment. But the same voices continue their opposition. In theory, Congress should be able to get it right. The clock may be ticking on the country’s energy woes, but we can afford spending time to get this critical issue right.