Congress"s spring forward presents a Y2K problem

Congress is confronting a Y2K-like mess of its own making, two years after voting to start daylight-saving time (DST) three weeks early — the change goes into effect March 11 and Hill staffers are scrambling.

Congressional technology officials are hurriedly reprogramming computers, cell phones, landlines and BlackBerrys to spring forward one hour on March 11 and fall back on Nov. 4.

“People were not aware of the implications this would have as much as they were aware of Y2K,” the director of technology on the House Administration Committee, Sterling Spriggs, said, referring to fears that computers would be unable to read dates containing the year 2000.

DST’s early start won’t shut down computer systems, but it could lead to scheduling headaches.

“One example would be that appointments scheduled during delta periods (March 11–April 1 and October 28–November 4, 2007) could appear at the incorrect time on Outlook calendars and BlackBerry devices,” the chief administrative officer (CAO) said in an e-mail sent to staffers this month.

The House Administration Committee held well-attended seminars for staffers and instructed House offices to download Microsoft’s patch on Feb. 13, Spriggs said. The committee also will provide specialists to update laptops.   

The CAO has set up a daylight-saving time website at http://housenet.house.gov/keywords/daylight.

On Thursday, congressional district offices were reminded via e-mail to reprogram their telephone systems.

“The Avaya Partner ACS telephone system … has the ability to automatically change the time for daylight saving time. Usually this is a good thing, but because daylight saving time starts three weeks earlier this year, the system will not automatically change,” the CAO wrote in an e-mail.

In 2005, Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.) passed an amendment to the energy bill changing the start of daylight-saving time.

“[Daylight] saving just brings a smile to everybody’s faces. We all just feel sunnier after we set the clocks ahead,” Markey said at the time in a statement.

Markey last week said the change is supported by research showing that longer days decrease fatal traffic accidents, reduce crime and provide relief for individuals suffering from night blindness.

In assessing the cost of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Congressional Budget Office classified the law as an unfunded mandate. But it also said the change would not impose significant costs on state or local governments.

Nevertheless, DST’s new start has proven to Congress the adage that time is money.

Spriggs said the House is prepared for the time change, but noted that nothing is foolproof.

“I am sure that with anything of this magnitude, a small percentage of things may not get done,” he said.

Concerned about what the federal government was doing to inform the public about the early start, Markey wrote Transportation Secretary Mary Peters last week asking her what steps she had taken.

“I want to make sure that the Transportation Department does everything it can to make the extended daylight saving time as routine as setting your clock or downloading a software update for your computer,” Markey wrote. 

Daylight-saving time is an old idea that fell in and out of vogue throughout the 20th century. Proponents argue that it is a cost-free way to save energy. Opponents say there is no conclusive evidence that there is any correlation between lower energy costs and extended daylight-saving time.

“It’s one of the biggest urban myths,” an analyst at the libertarian CATO Institute, Jerry Taylor, said. “The reason politicians like it is that there are some business interests that gain from DST and it is sort of a cost-free way to provide a gesture of saving energy.”