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U.S. Senate Stretches its Limited and Enumerated Powers by Locking States Into Permanent Yearlong Daylight Savings Time
Andrew Hyman

The U.S. Senate recently approved the “Sunshine Protection Act.”  The primary reason for this legislation is so that we won’t have to change our clocks twice a year anymore, which for many people is quite aggravating and unnecessary.  Now the bill moves to the House.  I doubt that the federal government plausibly has power to lock the states into this arrangement, and many states will have no recourse if they realize in a year or two that they prefer standard time all year long, instead of daylight savings time all year long as this legislation envisions. There is also a First Amendment issue, because the time is basically what people say it is.

The legal history is covered in a 2020 law review note by Zachary Gould.  As Gould describes, the original justification for daylight savings time (DST) in the USA was as a wartime measure during WWI, and then again in WWII:

Supporters of the Bill contended that an extra hour of daylight would allow for increased food production, fuel conservation, and health improvements…. On March 19, 1918, after nearly a year of deliberations in Congress, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Standard Time Act into law…. Without the justification of the war effort, agricultural interests began to successfully lobby Congress to repeal DST…. The Bill was officially repealed on August 20, 1919…. On January 20, 1942, “An Act to Promote the National Security and Defense by Establishing Daylight Saving Time” was signed into law…. In September 1945, the measures were repealed….

Congress later passed the Uniform Time Act of 1966, reiterating much of the 1918 Act but allowing states to opt out of DST if the whole state were to make the change.  There was a temporary emergency measure from 1973 to 1975, and then things reverted back to the 1966 arrangement.  Aside from some minor changes, we continue now with the 1966 scheme that allows states to opt out.  

However, the proposed Sunshine Protection Act that the Senate just passed would lock the states in, by repealing 15 U.S.C. 260a.  This new legislation is therefore a greater intrusion into state power than the scheme we’ve been living with since 1966, and of course there is no way to justify the current legislation as a war measure like in the two world wars (let’s hope the Ukraine situation does not escalate into another one).

Everyone knows the main reason —- and probably the only significant reason —- for this bill is to reduce the aggravation of adjusting clocks twice a year.  That does not easily fall within any enumerated power that the states have delegated to Congress. National uniformity is impossible here, because each of the time zones has sunlight at different times.  Moreover, I am not aware that Arizona’s longstanding rejection of daylight savings time has impacted interstate commerce.

In 2016, a “Daylight Savings Time Preservation Pact” was introduced in the Oklahoma legislature.  An interstate compact like that is an obvious way to address this timekeeping issue.  The Constitution says: “No State shall, without the Consent of Congress…enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State….”  Thus, Congress could lead the way by drafting and pre-approving an interstate agreement about what we should do with our clocks.  The agreement could say something like this: 

Congress hereby pre-approves an agreement among states to adopt daylight savings time all year long. This agreement shall be in force as long as approved by 70% of the states, and each state can opt out upon two years’ written notice provided to Congress and to all of the other states.  Any party to this agreement that opts out without proper notice shall have to begin the withdrawal procedure again.  States are free to rescind any notice of withdrawal before it occurs, and are also free to re-join this agreement after any proper withdrawal.

Another option would be for Congress to tweak the 1966 Act so that it provides for daylight savings time all year long, but always preserves the ability of each state to switch over to standard time all year long.  That would lessen the enumerated powers problem by giving states flexibility that the Sunshine Protection Bill lacks.  It would also loosen the grip of the federal government on noncommercial speech.

States would have some flexibility under the Sunshine Protection Bill to chart their own course up until the law takes effect, but after the effective date they will be stuck with the course they charted in 2022.  If Congress cared enough during two world wars and the oil crisis of the early 1970s to carefully limit its encroachment upon state power to the duration of the emergencies, then why not now?  Even in 1966, Congress set up a framework that allowed states to basically do what they want.  That will no longer be true, once this legislation is passed.  Congress could easily achieve its goal  in a more legitimate way, by approving an interstate agreement, or by amending the 1966 Act less drastically.  It may well turn out in a few years that many states prefer to have standard time all year long, instead of daylight savings time all year long, but they will be trapped, despite the Constitution’s careful protection of not just various individual liberties like free speech, but additionally its protection of political liberty.

MICHAEL RAMSEY ADDS:  Much as I like daylight saving time, I agree that Congress' legislation in this area lacks an obvious enumerated power under the Constitution's original meaning.  

We talked about this in my Constitutional Law class (because of course we take up only the most important issues gripping our nation), and one of my students suggested the weights and measures clause of Article I, Section 8, cl. 5:

The Congress shall have Power ... To coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the standards of Weights and Measures.

Perhaps it's a measure of time? (Though I suspect they meant physical measures such as length and volume.)