Pillow Talk on Capitol Hill

Sleep Foundation Lobby Reaches Out to Members

Posted April 2, 2004 at 6:04pm

Feeling a bit groggy?

At least you don’t work for the National Sleep Foundation.

In addition to losing an hour of much-needed sleep over the weekend, the foundation is coming off its busiest time of the year, National Sleep Awareness Week.

As part of a series of events leading up to the return of Daylight Savings Time, the foundation released its annual survey on the sleep habits of Americans, raised a cool-as-the-other-side-of-the-pillow $1 million at its biggest fundraiser of the year and co-hosted a two-day conference in Washington to promote the importance of a good night’s rest.

“There is a tremendous lack of information about the problems of not getting enough sleep,” said Darrel Drobnich, the senior director for government affairs at the National Sleep Foundation.

Yes, even sleep has its own lobby in Washington these days.

Richard Gelula, who runs the foundation, added: “We want to tell Americans that they probably need another hour of sleep.”

In addition to promoting general awareness of the need for enough shut-eye, the foundation is pressing Congress to spend more money on sleep research.

There are more than 80 different known sleep disorders, affecting 40 million to 50 million Americans and costing the U.S. economy about $100 billion a year in lost productivity and car crashes, according to industry figures.

Yet the federal government spends only about $120 million a year on sleep research — and even less to educate the public about the importance of sleep.

The National Sleep Foundation was founded more than a decade ago after Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and then-Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) created the National Commission on Sleep Disorder Research.

The commission’s 1992 report called for the creation of a sleep disorder center at the National Institutes of Health. But it did nothing to promote sleep.

Enter the National Sleep Foundation.

“We know the extent of sleep disorders and deprivation, but there is not enough energy, commitment and resources devoted to educating society — that is the mission of the National Sleep Foundation,” said William Dement, the author of the four-and-a-half-inch-thick authoritative bedtime read, “Practices and Principles of Sleep.”

Compared with more traditional lobbying organizations in Washington, the National Sleep Foundation has found its Congressional audience, well, dreamy.

“We’re amazed at the number of Members of Congress and staffers who talk about their own sleep problems when we are on Capitol Hill,” Drobnich said.

The slumbering Congressman has long been a derisive caricature for lawmakers in Washington. In truth, hectic travel schedules — coupled with the occasional all-night session — can leave Members lacking in sleep.

As many as one in 10 lawmakers and Congressional aides suffers from a type of sleep disorder, according to Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), who suffers from a sleep disorder known as sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea causes people to temporarily stop breathing during sleep, preventing them from reaching the most restful Rapid Eye Movement, or REM, sleep. The disorder is believed to lead to cardiovascular disease, stroke, depression and diabetes.

“It’s something that we need to have more exposure to,” Honda said.

Honda is one of several current and former Members who have been diagnosed with a sleep disorder.

Former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) once described his battle with his sleep disorder as “the toughest time for me in 30 years since I was wounded in Vietnam.”

Of course, there are other, less dramatic, consequences of not getting enough shuteye.

In an interview a few days after entering the White House, then-President Bill Clinton confessed to U.S. News & World Report that “every major error I made in my life I made when I was really tired.” He added that many of the decisions he would make during his presidency would require “some reasonable amount of rest” and vowed to do so.

Eight years later during the 2000 presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) echoed that sentiment: “Every big mistake made in politics is made when you are tired. I keep telling [my staff] that. I am up all the time. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I have to be up.”

The science behind sleep is relatively new, beginning in 1953 with the discovery of REM sleep. Sleep disorders were uncovered in the 1960s, but it was not until two decades ago that researchers first started looking into the effects of sleep disorders and sleep deprivation.

That was too late for William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the United States, who was well-known for nodding off midday. Once Taft fell asleep while talking to then-Speaker Joseph Cannon (R-Ill.).

Modern research suggests that Taft, like Honda, suffered from sleep apnea.

Honda and Cleland now sleep with a breathing machine called a CPAP, or Continuous Positive Air Pressure therapy. The device pumps air through the nostrils to keep air passages open during the night.

“I was cured overnight,” said Honda, who said he used to fall asleep in his car at red lights while driving to work.

Because so many Americans are believed to suffer from easily treatable sleep disorders, Honda has joined efforts by the National Sleep Foundation to educate the public about the disease.

The foundation also has also begun ramping up a lobbying effort to secure $1.5 million in funding for a public information campaign by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To aid the effort, the foundation has hired Dale Dirks of the Health and Medicine Counsel of Washington to press its case on Capitol Hill.

The National Sleep Foundation’s $2.8 million annual budget is funded in part by private donations, grants and contributions from corporations.

Several of the corporations that support the National Sleep Foundation have more than a passive interest in the foundation’s work, including drug makers Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline and Sepracor, as well as Sealy Corp., the largest U.S. bedding manufacturer in North America and the maker of the Sealy Posturepedic.

To compensate for its limited budget, the foundation has relied on some clever techniques to make its voice heard on Capitol Hill.

Several years ago, for example, it handed out pillows to Members and their aides that read: “Open Your Eyes to the Importance of Sleep.”

Perhaps more important, the foundation benefits from the fact that it promotes something that affects the everyday lives of lawmakers and staff.

Said Gelula: “Every human being sleeps — or doesn’t.”