“Acronyms are part of the language here in D.C.,” Rep. Joe Barton said. “They may be easy to say, but often the catchy words don’t mean anything.”
The Texas Republican was the chief sponsor of the BULB Act, which seeks to repeal certain light bulb efficiency standards from the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. He said he was glad his bill’s acronym aligned with its policy.
“When Lisa came up with BULB for our light bulb bill, I knew it would resonate with people,” Barton said. “People may not know what it stands for, but they know the name and they know what it does.” The BULB acronym was thought up by Lisa Miller, Barton’s former communications director on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Miller said the Better Use of Light Bulbs Act was the third title that she came up with and that when she did, she knew it was the one.
“A light came on, as it were,” Miller said. “I brainstormed the name and got the sign-off from the other co-sponsors ... and ultimately the final sign-off was from Mr. Barton.”
Miller said BULB worked because it was easily identifiable and reflected what the bill was about.
“Ultimately, it’s the subject matter that sells it,” Miller said of the bill. But she added that while the text is what might sell a bill, an acronym can add a nice bow to the package — it “certainly makes it easier for people to understand what it’s about.”
While experts agree that bill acronyms can enhance legislation and even help undercut the opposition, they note that acronyms can also weaken a bill.
A bill acronym “could be too cute and make the proponents look like they are not serious,” Zelizer said. If “you do it too much, it loses its meaning.”
Sometimes bill acronyms can actually add meaning to the legislation that they describe. Take Rep. Tim Griffin’s HEAL Act, which stands for the Honoring Ezeagwula and Long Act.
The recently introduced bill honors two soldiers, Pvts. William Andrew Long and Quinton Ezeagwula, who were attacked in the line of duty in Little Rock, Ark. “The title reflects my desire that the bill will help Pvt. Ezeagwula and the Long and Ezeagwula families heal from this tragedy,” the Arkansas Republican said.
The bill would ensure that Long and Ezeagwula are treated the same as soldiers who were harmed in a combat zone.
Zelizer argued that while a bill acronym can be important, it is the policy that ultimately sells.
“In the end, I think public policy succeeds or fails based on the kind of political impact it’s going to have,” he said.
In regard to the PATRIOT Act, for instance, Zelizer said the support for the bill came more as a result of its policy and the fact that it was a post-9/11 world, as opposed to the patriotic acronym.
However, experts agree that while bill acronyms might not make or break a piece of legislation, they certainly can be helpful for quickly referencing bills in the world of instant gratification and social media.
“It’s understandable why legislators do more of this in the modern media age,” Zelizer said.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.