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Putting a Face on a Bill

The mysterious death of a high school student on a volunteer trip. A missing 18-year-old girl. The abduction and assault of a recent high school graduate.

All of these tragedies led directly to bills in Congress named for the victims: Phylicia’s Law, Kristen’s Act and the Kelsey Smith Act.

It’s a trend that shows no sign of slowing down. This session, more than 30 bills in Congress are named for people who died an untimely death, as a result of either a crime or suicide. In past years, bills have also been named for the victims of certain diseases.

One bill was inspired by the death of Phylicia Moore, a high school student who was found dead while on a class trip to work with schools and hospitals in Africa. With the help of Moore’s parents, Rep. Steven Rothman (D-N.J.) proposed Phylicia’s Law, a bill to require school districts to draw up safety plans for any overnight field trip.

Rothman said Moore’s story helped galvanize support for the bill, which currently has seven co-sponsors.

“Unfortunately, it often occurs in legislating that a personal story, often a personal tragedy, is necessary to get the attention of legislators, who are otherwise bombarded with bills on a daily basis,” he said.

The Kelsey Smith Act, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.), was named for a teenager who went missing and was found dead days later, having been sexually assaulted and strangled. Investigators ultimately found Smith’s body using records showing the location of her cellphone, information that the phone company refused to release until it had been officially subpoenaed.

The bill would require phone companies to provide those records sooner during emergencies.

“This piece of legislation just points out that there’s a serious flaw in our system and that there is a way to save lives if we address it,” Jenkins said. She said she wouldn’t have known this was a problem without hearing Smith’s story.

“This bill came to me entirely because of this instance,” she said.

Jenkins said tragic stories can help bring people together to support a bill. 

“When you talk about the Kelsey Smith Act, people are reminded of the tragic loss,” she said. “It is also always easier to remember a story than ‘H.R. 847.’”

The names also help get bills passed. One of the most well-known examples was the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act, named after a teenager who contracted HIV from contaminated blood. The original act to provide medical care to AIDS patients who could not otherwise afford it was passed in 1990 with 66 co-sponsors in the Senate, and it has since been reauthorized multiple times, most recently in 2009.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who sponsored the 2009 reauthorization, said White’s story was key.

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