Daylight Savings Delusion

A California congressman's strange solution to his state's energy woes

A California congressman has come up with the most novel--and delusional--solution yet to his state's energy woes: Let's just lie about what time it is.

No kidding. Last Thursday, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) spoke before the House science committee's energy subcommittee. He was pushing a bill that would give California and other Western states the right to opt out of daylight saving time in favor of "double daylight saving time." If Californians move their clocks up another hour, Sherman explained, they will wake up to darker skies, but enjoy more light in the evening. That could cut energy use by as much as 2 percent, testified Sherman.

His testimony suggests many things about Californians, politicians, and, perhaps especially, Californian politicians. But let's focus on just one meaning: Sherman's appearance underscores that, given a choice between facing hard political realities head-on or advancing crackpot but "painless" solutions, most pols will instinctively take the latter.

Give Sherman credit for coming prepared. Where did his 2 percent number come from? A Department of Transportation study that documented possible energy savings from such a time shift. To be sure, the data was compiled in 1975, but hey, a government study is a government study, right? And double daylight saving time is a policy option that surfaces regularly during energy crises, too.

So what's wrong with Sherman's proposed march back in time? For starters, the study he relies on is wholly irrelevant to today's situation, and not simply because it's 26 years old, according to James C. Benfield, founder of something called the Daylight Saving Time Coalition. Benfield is a legend among the daylight savings lobby (in Washington, everything has a lobby). In the 1980s, he successfully persuaded Congress to move spring's annual clock change ahead three weeks, to early April. He did so at the behest of fast food chains, which realized that they sold more breakfast sandwiches under the adjusted time.

In his subcommittee appearance, Benfield pointed out that doubling up on daylight savings would likely be opposed by a surely unbeatable coalition of soccer moms, dairy farmers, and joggers. Children might end up heading to school in the dark, Benfield said, which was a concern when the same idea was proposed back in the mid-'70s. When similar measures were debated (and on occasion, actually implemented, as during World War II), dairy farmers protested that changing milking schedules hurt production. Joggers, who prefer lighter mornings and darker evenings, would hate the measure.

But the clincher against double daylight saving time is this: Whatever dislocations the change might cause, they would all be for naught. Benfield noted that home heating and cooling gobble up far more energy than household lighting, which was the actual focus of the government study Sherman relied on. So there's no reason to believe there'd be any real energy savings.

In a nod to federalism, Rep. Sherman stressed that his bill would not decide the issue. It would merely give the Western states the right to decide for themselves what time they wanted it to be. Such humility on the part of a legislator is heart-warming. Still one is left wondering: What is going on when an elected member of the U.S. Congress is talking about pushing clock hands back instead of discussing policies that might actually make it easier for citizens to find the energy they need.

Sherman's bill may not offer his constituents any hope of relief from rolling blackouts this summer, but it does a shine a light on the legislative mindset.

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