WASHINGTON — The Senate’s unanimous passage of a bill to make daylight saving time permanent stunned many Americans, not least of which the senators themselves.
In a twist the Founding Fathers likely did not anticipate, quirky Senate conventions and a decision by staff in Sen. Tom Cotton’s office may result in an overhaul in the nation’s time zones.
Reporters and politicos were caught off guard Tuesday afternoon when the Sunshine Protection Act sailed through the Senate without issue, with no senators speaking up to object to it passing by unanimous consent. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, serving as Senate chair overseeing the motion at the time, broke composure, burst into a grin, and whispered, “Yes!”
“I was surprised that someone didn’t object,” she told BuzzFeed News the next day, while noting that Arizona does not change its clocks, “because we’re smart.”
Any single senator could have blocked the daylight saving bill from passing but many didn’t know it was even happening. Sen. Rick Scott, a permanent daylight saving time proponent who signed a similar bill into law when he was governor of Florida, said he would have gone to give a speech on the Senate floor if he had known. Asked to re-create his reaction to the news, Sen. Chris Coons issued a series of shocked stammers that is impossible to phonetically translate.
One Senate source with knowledge of the situation said Sen. Tom Cotton vehemently opposes making daylight saving time permanent.
“No comment,” Cotton told BuzzFeed News when asked if he opposed the bill.
The source said that Cotton would have objected to the unanimous consent request, but his staff never told him it was happening.
“No comment,” Cotton told BuzzFeed News when asked why he didn’t object to the bill.
This is not how the Senate usually works. Passing a bill through the chamber is, by design, a long and painful process that usually results in shattered dreams and bitter failure.
Typically, to pass a bill you need to first clear it through a Senate committee, and then you need to ask the Senate majority leader to put it to a vote. They will tell you no because Senate floor time is in high demand and they are too busy confirming judges and keeping the government funded to spend hours on your bill. In the lucky event that your bill does move forward, you need to win over at least 60 of 100 senators, then go through hours of debate and multiple rounds of votes.
Or you can ask for unanimous consent.
With unanimous agreement, you can do pretty much anything. Any senator can go to the Senate floor any time and ask for unanimous consent to skip all of the debate and the votes and just pass the bill immediately. If no one objects, it is done. But all it takes is a single senator to object and the bill is blocked.
Senators ask for unanimous consent all the time but it’s usually just for show. The convention is that a senator will first “hotline” their bill, notifying every single senator of their plan. Those senators can then place a “hold” on the bill (saying they refuse consent). At that point, if you push the bill forward to the Senate floor, you’re likely doing it for the TV footage of you valiantly trying your best and being stymied by a mean colleague.
Sen. Marco Rubio said he initially planned to bring up the daylight saving bill Monday, but Sen. Roger Wicker had placed a hold on it and his flight was delayed. The consent request was bumped to Tuesday so that Wicker could block it, but he never did.
Wicker said he has concerns that children will be at increased danger going to school during dark mornings, but said he ultimately declined to get involved because he is more focused on issues like the war in Ukraine.
“I chose not to stand in the way. I’m more interested in fighting other battles,” he said.
Other senators, it seems, were not told by their staff that the request was happening.
Coons is one of them. He said that he and some other senators reacted to the news by asking Rubio if they’d given everyone a heads up, and were told yes.
“It’s literally an issue my staff and I had never discussed, and they made an assumption that I don’t really care about daylight saving time,” Coons said. “And I don’t know if I do! I’ve never taken five minutes to stop and think about it.”
During a hotline, a senator’s legislative director typically vets the request. But sometimes those staff will decide an issue is too benign or obviously doomed to bother their boss with. “A lot of things try to get hotlined every day,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (who, when asked if he knew the move was coming, did not explicitly answer but said, “you know, it wasn’t, like, my highest priority in the US Senate”).
This system raises the question: If any senator can pass a bill on any day, why aren’t people trying this all the time? Why doesn’t Sen. Bernie Sanders slip into the Senate when no Republicans are around and use unanimous consent to pass the Green New Deal? Why doesn’t Sen. Ted Cruz wait until Democrats are eating lunch and then single-handedly repeal Obamacare? Why doesn't Sen. Chuck Schumer make Tide pods look less delicious?
“Since I’ve been here I’ve asked that same question,” said Republican Sen. Mike Braun, who began representing Indiana in the Senate in 2019.
“Why couldn’t you just do a sneak attack when nobody was looking? That’s a courtesy of the Senate, where that doesn’t happen,” he said.
The long-standing hotline system of notifying every senator of each unanimous consent request isn’t just a matter of principle. The moment this norm is breached and one side tries something sneaky, both parties would need to implement a system where one of their members is present in the Senate chamber at all times to block consent requests. That’s a babysitting duty no one wants to be stuck with, so both sides agree to play nice.
A sneaky consent request would also be far from guaranteed to succeed. Every bill needs to pass both the Senate and the House, as well as go to the president’s desk, in order to become law.
“Remember, it’s a circuitous, drawn-out process here in general,” Braun said. “The only time that would really make a difference is if you snuck it through and it was a slam dunk in the other chamber and with the president.”
The permanent daylight saving time bill is now in this limbo. Though it has passed the Senate, it still needs to pass the House and be signed into law by President Joe Biden. Passing a bill through the House is generally a lot easier than the Senate, but there is still an opportunity for standard time proponents — or clock-changing enthusiasts — to block the legislation.
One person said by a Senate source to be pushing the House to do exactly that is Tom Cotton. Cotton’s office did not comment.