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Members Strain for Catchy Legislative Titles

Congress is a lot like show business. Members are always on stage, reciting their lines and seeking the approval of their audiences. They are also continuously competing with each other for public attention.

[IMGCAP(1)]To do this, they have to distinguish themselves in some manner from the rest of the pack. A song from the Broadway musical “Gypsy” captures this imperative nicely: “You Gotta Have a Gimmick (if you want to get a hand. … You gotta have a gimmick if you want to get ahead).”

One gimmick Members have been relying on for years is the use of catchy titles for their bills. The No Child Left Behind Act was a grabber because it appealed to everyone’s sense of fairness and equal educational opportunity for young people. However, for some Members the title alone is not a sufficient gimmick. They want a boffo title that is also a word-forming acronym. The No Child Left Behind law doesn’t accomplish that twin goal: NCLB not only spells nothing, but it is tough to pronounce.

Consequently, Members and staff often wrack their brains — first, to come up with clever acronyms for bills they intend to introduce, and then to strain for appropriate words to fit the acronym. The most blatant example of this in recent times was the post-9/11 enactment of the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 — a double acronym that stood for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said he was so upset by the acronym’s implication that those voting against the bill were not patriots that he was tempted to introduce legislation to outlaw deceptive bill title acronyms. He was constrained from doing so, he said, only by First Amendment considerations. There were many who cheered his sentiments at the time, not necessarily because they agreed with his views on the merits of the bill but because they were tired of gagging on the force-feeding of cutesy, acronymic bill titles.

While I have not conducted a scientific survey over time to determine whether the clever acronym trend for bill titles is increasing, decreasing or is about the same, I continue to wince whenever such a bill pops up on my radar screen, aka THOMAS (which is not an acronym).

Surely Frank, who was the new chairman of the House Financial Services Committee in the 110th Congress, had some qualms when Congress enacted the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act in 2008, the first title of which was the Troubled Asset Relief Program. (In all fairness, Frank’s committee did not report that bill, though it did report the TARP Reform and Accountability Act in this Congress.)

It is not altogether clear whom the tarp was intended to cover — the creditors or debtors — but its unpopular legacy is that it bailed out the big banks on Wall Street without helping the little guy on Main Street. A deceptive acronym? Perhaps. But I’m sure the simple explanation is that someone in President George W. Bush’s Treasury Department coined the acronym. (Congress tends to take credit only for warm and fuzzy acronyms for popular bills.)

In this Congress alone I have identified eight significant bills (defined here as those cleared by the House Rules Committee) that contain word-forming acronyms as titles. Some do so by reference as reauthorizations of previously blessed acronymic bills. These include the previously mentioned TARP reform bill; the America COMPETES Reauthorization (of a 2007 law), which stands for Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science; and this year’s Expedited CARD Reform for Consumers Act, amending a law enacted just last year, in which the acronym stands for Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure.

Breaking into the acronymic bill-naming hall of fame in this Congress are the Restore Our American Mustangs Act, or ROAM, the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Exchange Act, or FLAME, the Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act, or HIRE, the Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act, or GIVE, and, the newest entrant, the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections, or DISCLOSE.

Withdrawn from the competition was the Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act. It was such a strained attempt at “Preventing HaRASS” that the bill’s chief sponsor had the name changed on the House floor to the Keeping All Students Safe Act, or KASS — not a word but at least pronounceable.

My favorite recent attempt at an acronymic bill title was the Implementing Management for Performance and Related Reforms to Obtain Value in Every Acquisition Act. It was listed on the House Majority Whip’s website and in the White House Statement of Administration Policy (commonly referred to as a SAP) as the IMPROVE Acquisition Act. The only problem is that the acronym has an extra R in it — obviously calling for the acquisition of an improved spell-checker to enhance performance.

Those wishing to join the Association for the Curtailment of the Ridiculous and Outlandish Naming of Youngish Measures can sign up here.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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