Testifying Before Congress on Daylight Saving Time
Testifying before Congress: A Behind the Scenes Look
Have you ever wanted to testify before the US Congress on an issue related to science or health? Last March, I had the opportunity to do exactly that! Here, I share the story of my adventure, what I learned, and how you might prepare for this experience should you be asked to testify. If you want to watch the actual testimony, you can find it HERE.
I’m a Professor of Neurology and Pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and direct the Vanderbilt Sleep Division. I’m no stranger to speaking publicly about what I do; I’m a relatively common source for regional and national media when it comes time to spring forward or fall back. But I’d never spoken to Congress about it.
My Hot Take on Daylight Saving Time
The majority of Americans would like to stop moving their clocks back and forth every March and November, a practice that has health consequences, including more strokes, heart attacks, and teen sleep loss.
But where to land– permanent Daylight Saving Time or permanent Standard Time?
While permanent Daylight Saving Time sounds like the fun choice, with extended evening light for more rounds of golf, dining out, and shopping, the healthier choice is permanent Standard Time. Morning light is essential for waking up, getting us going, and aligning our body clocks so we get to bed on time. The net result is more sleep. Evidence supports that permanent Daylight Saving Time would result in adverse health effects, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. You can read more about the adverse impacts of Daylight Saving Time on sleep and our body clocks in a piece I authored for The Conversation.
Congress Called, I Answered
A staff member from the Congressional Committee on Energy and Commerce asked if I would answer some questions for their upcoming hearing on Daylight Saving Time. I was delighted to help. What a terrific topic for a sleep specialist interested in science communication and politics! In early March, the staffer and I talked via video conference for about 30 minutes, between my appointments with clinic patients. The conversation was a lot like the one I had last fall, live with NPR’s 1A. Later that evening, I received an email from the staff member – Would I like to testify the following week in front of a congressional subcommittee?
Of course I said yes. It was a busy time - I was leaving for a professional meeting in Italy, had presentations to prepare for, packing to do, and papers to send off. But I thought about all the people I could help in case permanent Standard Time is ever adapted!
I put everything on hold and worked on my written testimony for the Congressional session.
Knowing my audience- and what to expect- was the key to my success. I connected with my institution’s congressional liaison for expert advice on how to put my testimony together. I read up on who was on the subcommittee, including where their constituents lived and how they would be affected by the time change. Then I reached out to other stakeholders—four different sleep-advocacy organizations that support permanent Standard Time. They reviewed my written testimony and coached me on what questions I might expect from subcommittee members.
The morning of my testimony, I was nervous,sleep-deprived and excited.
Usually, people testify in one of the many conference rooms in the US Capitol, but the subcommittee gave us the option to speak via video conference because of the pandemic. I chose the virtual option because of the pandemic and my upcoming trip to Italy.
I cleaned up my cluttered study, put on a suit that I last wore pre-pandemic (yes, the entire suit instead of just the top half coupled with gym shorts - I wanted to feel professional), signed on to the video platform way early, and waited. Eventually someone came on to check my video and test my microphone, and then I waited some more. I watched the room fill with members of Congress and staff. I greeted the other two experts who were testifying – a lawyer from Washington State who was to speak about the virtues of permanent Daylight Saving Time, and a convenience-store lobbyist who would advocate for keeping things status quo. The chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee and the chair of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce gave their remarks.
Then finally, it was my turn to testify. I knew I had a five-minute speaking limit, and had practiced my remarks so that I could stay within that time frame and ad-lib them a bit.
Then we had a break while all of the subcommittee members went to vote on an unrelated topic. When they came back, it was question and answer time. Every congressperson on the 23-member subcommittee who was present (which was most of them) had time to ask questions, and almost everyone wanted to ask me something. None of the representatives was adversarial, and they all wanted to know something a little different. This is where my prep really paid off. I distilled the science of sleep into short bite-sized segments. I made concepts such as “circadian misalignment” less jargon-filled and easy to digest (if you’re wondering, that jargon is just a fancy way of saying our internal body clocks are “off”).
While I was testifying, a friend texted me to suggest I find a memorable mantra and stick with it. I repeated “Permanent Standard Time is the healthy choice” again and again so it would stick in members’ minds.
I used my own story to illustrate the points I was making. I told them about how when I lived in Michigan, we had to wait until after 10 pm to have enough darkness for the annual Fourth of July fireworks - too late for a lot of the little kids who waited all year for the light show.
At one point, I got a little over-enthusiastic and long-winded. To my embarrassment, my explanation ate up all of the congressperson’s time! After that, I went back to the bite-sized answers and explanations.
I calmed my nerves by taking deep breaths and remembering that my job was to share my expertise so others could make a decision for the American public. I explained the toll that permanent Daylight Saving Time would take on our essential workers and our K-12 students, who would be waking up in the dark to get to work or school. When I didn't have the right expertise to answer a question, I shared what I did know and deferred to the other experts.
When it was over, I basked in the celebratory emails and texts from my colleagues. I definitely had achieved a “bucket list” item!
What I learned and how it can help you
If you get a call asking you to share your expertise, I sincerely hope you will answer and accept.
- Don’t worry that you aren’t expert enough to testify. You are an expert in your field and your knowledge and passion can make a difference for others.
- Use the experience to further your Sci Comm skills—through storytelling, mantras, and narratives.
- Practice delivering your message in short segments that people will understand. Resist the urge to monologue and instead try to have a conversation with the people you are talking with.
I flew to Italy the day before we moved our clocks forward, relieved that another season of Daylight Saving Time had passed by. When the Senate passed permanent Daylight Saving Time that week, I was astonished.
But all was not lost. While I explored Italy, I also answered tons of calls from the media. I spoke to journalists from the New York Times, Rolling Stone, the Guardian, and others about why the Senate decision was not the healthy choice.
Each of those conversations was another chance to explain the science, and I enjoyed every one. I also appreciated when they told me that they understood the science of sleep better after I had explained it.
For now, the House has not moved any Daylight Saving Time legislation out of committee. Which means… come next fall, the twice-yearly media blitz will begin again and I will once again be transported into a temporarily “famous” sleep and Sci Comm expert.