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The U.S. tried permanent daylight saving time in the 1970s — then quickly rejected it

The U.S. Senate advanced a bill on March 15 that would bring an end to the twice-yearly changing of clocks in favor of a "new, permanent standard time" that would mean brighter winter evenings.
Chris Delmas
AFP via Getty Images
The U.S. Senate advanced a bill on March 15 that would bring an end to the twice-yearly changing of clocks in favor of a "new, permanent standard time" that would mean brighter winter evenings.

The Senate gave itself a pat on the back earlier this week when senators voted without objection to make daylight saving time permanent.

"The good news is if we can get this passed, we don't have to keep doing this stupidity anymore," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., of his legislation to end the need to annually change the clocks in March and November.

However, America tried this before — and the country hated it. In the early 1970s, America was facing an energy crisis so the government tried an experiment. Congress passed a law to make daylight saving time permanent year round, but just for two years. The thinking was more sunlight in the evening would reduce the nation's energy consumption.

It didn't work, said David Prerau, one of the nation's foremost experts on the issue.

"It became very unpopular very quickly," he told NPR.

Americans do not like changing their clocks, but they disliked even more going to work and school in the dark for months — the price the nation had to pay for more sunlight in winter evenings.

It also didn't reduce energy consumption as intended. In 1974, Congress repealed the law — before the two-year experiment was even up. Nearly 50 years later, Congress is back at it.

"Today the Senate has finally delivered on something Americans all over the country want: to never have to change their clocks again," enthused Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., on the Senate floor.

"We know that daylight saving time helps to turn the corners of people's mouth upwards, into a smile!" said Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass.

Advocates for permanent daylight saving time include Steve Calandrillo, a professor at the University of Washington law school. He testified before a recent House subcommittee that it would do everything from save lives to reduce crime, conserve energy, improve health and boost the economy. His motto: "Darkness kills, sunshine saves."

Dr. Beth Malow, a neurologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, also testified. She agreed that it would be healthier for Americans to stop changing their clocks, but she thinks permanent standard time is a better choice.

"It's called standard time because ST lines up with our natural, biological rhythms," she said. Permanent standard time with sunnier mornings and darker evenings would be healthier, especially for front-line workers and school students with early waking hours.

The best answer, according to Prerau, is to do nothing at all. The current system that begin in 2007 of starting daylight saving time in March and ending it in November, is the product of decades of study and compromise.

"I personally think the current system that we have, with some flaws, is the best system we could have," he said.

The House has no immediate plans to take up the Senate-passed bill, but there is bipartisan support for it. The Biden administration hasn't taken a position on it yet. "I don't have a specific position from the administration at this point in time," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

The history lesson here for Congress: Be careful what you vote for.

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Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.