Memorable Titles Help Sell Policy
It’s not surprising that a city colloquially known as “D.C.” is fond of acronyms.
On any given day in Washington, the head of the GPO could put in a call to the CBO to get an update on a report about a DOT bill (supported by the likes of the AAA) that includes language about the USACE.
Acronym fever is particularly high on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are always trying to condense their bill titles into catchy — and hopefully persuasive — acronyms.
One of the most well-known bill acronyms is the USA PATRIOT Act, or the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, which was passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Some say the acronym helped ensure the law passed.
“There was very little opposition to the PATRIOT Act,” said Julian Zelizer, a Congressional historian at Princeton University. “No one wants to vote against something that’s patriotic.”
The acronym trend started more than 20 years ago.
One of the first bills with an intended acronym was the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, or the WARN Act of 1988, according to a 2005 research paper by University of Washington law librarian Mary Whisner. She found about 22 acronymic bills dated from 1988 to 2003.
Among previously introduced bills with acronyms are the SCAMS Act, or the Senior Citizens Against Marketing Scams Act, the CAN-SPAM Act, or the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act, and the MATCH Act, or the Managing Arson Through Criminal History Act.
There’s a bill acronym for everything and everyone.
For animal lovers, there’s the CHIMP Act, or the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection Act.
For grease monkeys, there’s the CARS Act, or the Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save Act. It generated the Cash for Clunkers program in 2009.
And for college fraternity boys, there is the recently introduced BEER Act, or the Brewer’s Employment and Excise Tax Relief Act. The legislation is designed to help cut taxes for smaller brewers.
Of course, these acronyms aren’t always representative of the bills or legislative priorities that they describe. In fact, the bill acronyms sometimes have nothing to do with the policy.
Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) recently introduced the STEAM Act, which stands for the Stripping the E-Prescribe Arbitrary Mandates Act.
The legislation, which has nothing to do with vaporized water, would help lessen penalties on doctors and hospitals that cannot yet implement certain parts of the electronic health records program.
“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.
Miller noted that simple acronyms can make dense legislation more accessible to the general population, which might not have time between work, school and family to read about complex-sounding legislation.
Acronyms “certainly make it easier for people to understand what [legislation] is about,” Miller said, adding that even in small-town America, she runs across people who are familiar with the BULB Act.