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A simple fix for polarization in Congress: Less polarizing bill titles

Many lawmakers seem more interested in attracting attention than passing their own legislation

In Congress today, we’re seeing more bills titled to win points with a member’s base, rather than to maximize the odds of enactment into public policy, Rifkin writes.
In Congress today, we’re seeing more bills titled to win points with a member’s base, rather than to maximize the odds of enactment into public policy, Rifkin writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

“A rose by any other name,” William Shakespeare wrote, “would smell as sweet.” Maybe so, but it wouldn’t sell as well.

For my job summarizing congressional bills for an online political information website, I read through the list of every single piece of legislation being introduced in Congress. I’ve noticed a trend recently: More bills are being titled to win points with one’s base, rather than to actually maximize odds of enactment into public policy. That’s true even for legislation that could potentially make it into public policy.

Take a February bill about government ethics. Although a decades-old law bans a member of Congress from putting their spouse on their congressional office payroll, a member is still permitted to hire their spouse for their congressional campaign. While technically legal, it’s considered ethically dubious because of perceived familial self-enrichment, yet members of both parties have done it.

A 2007 bill to ban the practice, blandly titled the Campaign Expenditure Transparency Act, passed the House on a voice vote, a procedure used only for noncontroversial legislation when there’s no significant opposition. Yet after Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar’s campaign paid her husband as a political consultant, Republican Rep. Tom Tiffany titled his 2021 version of the legislation the Oversight for Members And Relatives, or OMAR, Act. Good luck getting that passed by the Democratic-led House.

Or take a January bill about taxes. Under the so-called marriage penalty, some married couples can be subjected to a higher tax burden when filing jointly than they would have had they both been single and filed individually. Created essentially by accident due to a loophole in a Reagan-era tax reform law, virtually nobody in either party actually supports this consequence, so a repeal vote should be almost unanimous.

Yet as a clear homage to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, Republican Rep. Greg Steube titled his repeal legislation the Make Marriage Great Again Act. Good luck getting that passed by the Democratic-led House as well.

Speaking of that Reagan-era tax reform, the legislation was called … the Tax Reform Act of 1986. If you want to enact legislation, generally speaking, that’s the way to do it. When Roll Call convened a panel of congressional scholars to determine the 10 most consequential pieces of legislation in American history, their titles included such unmemorable names as the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 and the Amendments to Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

Of late, we’ve been getting such eyebrow-raising titles as former New York Rep. Eliot Engel’s Flamethrowers? Really? Act or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s _______ Act. (Not a typo.) Maybe those are good titles for getting legislation spread on social media, but not so good for actually getting it over the finish line. As the George Washington character in “Hamilton” raps, “Winning was easy, young man / Governing’s harder.”

What are members of Congress actually trying to do: Enact legislation or attract attention? Increasingly, if bill titles are any indication, it’s the latter. History, though, provides an instructive lesson on the tremendous good that can result when a politician puts policy over self-promotion.

In his biography of the 33rd president, David McCullough chronicles the naming of the Truman administration’s $12 billion foreign aid proposal to rebuild an utterly devastated Europe after World War II. White House counsel Clark Clifford wanted to name it the Truman Plan, but Harry Truman demurred, given his relative unpopularity at the time.

“Anything that is sent up to the Senate and House with my name on it,” Truman lamented, “will quiver a couple of times and die.” The package was ultimately named the Marshall Plan, after Truman’s secretary of State — and played a central role toward worldwide economic and political stability.

Today, it seems that members of Congress often intentionally name legislation so that it will be sent up to the Senate and House to quiver a couple of times and die. Sure, the title might go viral for a day, but that should never be the end goal. No sports team would ever brag that it was winning at halftime.

Jesse Rifkin writes about Congress for GovTrack Insider.

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