Jonathan Chait

How George W. Bush Ruined Daylight Savings Time

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[Guest post by Barron YoungSmith]

Now that the elections are over, we're hearing a lot about how President Obama should adopt simple, crowd-pleasing, populist measures that will again endear him to the middle classlike a Clinton-style foreclosure moratorium. Well, here's a smaller idea that would allow him to improve millions of Americans' lives, save money and energy, and reverse one of the lamest excesses of the Bush administration: Obama should repeal the daylight savings time change codified by the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Let's revisit why this act passed. In the summer of 2005, America was facing a full-blown energy crisis, but the Republican Congress was unwilling to do anything that would substantively improve the country's energy efficiency. They wouldn't mandate improved lightbulbs. They wouldn't increase CAFE standards. But, alongside billions of dollars in handouts and tax breaks for dirty energyand token money for boondoggles like clean coal and hydrogen fuel cellsthe Frist-Hastert Congress was willing to "save energy" by shortening the portion of the year when Americans are allowed to sleep late. They did this by shifting the start and end dates for daylight savings time so that the portion of the year when it's easier to wake up is a full month shorter, and the corresponding good-lord-this-is-painful period a month longer.

There was something unsettling and creepily disproportionate about the idea that Congress couldn't muster the will to improve energy efficiency, so it voted to change time itselfbut leave that aside. The rationale for the new daylight savings calendar was that it would reduce energy use by encouraging people to use less electric light, but that assumption hadn't been well testedand a new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) reveals that the policy likely encouraged Americans to use more energy by running heaters and air conditioners more than enough to offset the decreased use of light, and to spend more money doing so. Indeed, the primary beneficiaries seem to have been the retail and sporting-goods lobbies, who pushed for the bill because it makes people want to stay out later and shop or hunt. (Lobbies who opposed the bill included the Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, presumably because fewer people want to attend services before dawn, as well as the National Parent-Teacher Association.) In other words, like many other laws passed during the Bush administration, it was a sop to business that left ordinary folks holding the bagin this case a bag lunch packed during pitch-dark late October mornings.

To be sure, monkeying with the start date for daylight savings time is not that unusualpresidents FDR, Wilson, and Nixon all enacted far-reaching time changes in an attempt to reduce energy use during a national emergency (Nixon's was the OPEC embargo). But the history of these changes is a history of overreach and retrenchment: Both FDR and Nixon extended daylight savings time throughout the entire year, while Wilson's schedule was too extreme for a country that was still largely rural and agricultural. These efforts proved so unpopular that they were soon reversed by a Congress responsive to the American public. By contrast, the time change schedules adopted by presidents Johnson and Reagan were quite moderatethey gave people a little extra daylight during the summer months while still respecting the dictates of nature, synchronizing wake-up times with the actual passage of the seasons. Because they were so reasonable, these changes stuck … at least until a desperate President Bush tried to fake his way out of yet another national emergency. If President Obama wants to do the public a solid, and roll back a bad policy in the process, he should send the time change of 2005 off into the sunset.

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