Lawmakers turn to catchy names for bills

As lawmakers look for name recognition to garner support for their legislation, catchy bill acronyms such as the USA PATRIOT Act, the SNIPER Act or the BE REAL Act are becoming increasingly popular. With the relatively low chances of passing a bill into law, some legislators are doing anything they can to get their bills noticed.

“With everything that is going on at Capitol Hill, congressmen have recognized that, to get their bills passed, they need media interest and public support,” said Diana Owen, professor of political communication at Georgetown University. “Devising a creative title is a good strategy, if you want to get that media attention.”

While some offices slap together words to fit an acronym in just a few hours, others involve input from dozens of people and take days.

“The naming of bills can take hundreds of minds,” said Don DeArmon, legislative director for Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.). For the Sober Truth of Preventing Underage Drinking (or STOP Underage Drinking) Act of 2004, seven Hill offices were included in formulating the name of the bill.

“Clearly we wanted to come up with an acronym,” DeArmon said. “A catchy title helps the advocacy groups to quickly identify your bill and make it priority.”

Rodell Mollineau, communications director in Sen. Mark Pryor’s (D-Ark.) office, said that attention-grabbing titles also help constituents identify and voice opinions on legislation. Rather than refer to a boring bill number, the acronym or short title rolls easily off a person’s tongue.

“It is easier for people to remember,” Mollineau said about the SACRIFICE Act. “A lot of people back in Arkansas know what it is about.” From a communications standpoint, he said, SACRIFICE, which stands for Service Act for Care and Relief Initiatives for Forces Injured in Combat Engagements, “truly captures what our troops are doing now. It is a word that the American people can relate to.”

“You have to admit, it is very creative.” Mollineau added jokingly. “It probably took our legislative assistant longer to come up with the title than the legislation itself.”

Not as much is put into naming other bills. Rep. Ric Keller’s (R-Fla.) Cheeseburger Bill was named almost by accident. A news agency called and asked about “that Cheeseburger Bill,” meaning the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act, which protects restaurants from being sued for a person’s weight gain or obesity. The name stuck.

“Over the course of a few days, I received of several hundred phone calls about this bill and about half the calls referred to it as the Cheeseburger Bill,” Press Secretary Bryan Malenius said. “Now, everybody knows what it is.”

“Ever since the USA PATRIOT Act, there has been a push to come up with an acronym,” said Cynthia Cook, senior legislative assistant in Rep. Tom Udall’s (D-N.M.) office. “People are recognizing that interesting bill names can help bills get noticed and remembered.”

The USA PATRIOT ACT, which stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism, was introduced in 2001 by House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.). Just recently, Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) introduced the SAFE Act to offer a safe means of amending the USA PATRIOT Act. SAFE stands for Security and Freedom Enhancement Act.

So why doesn’t every bill come with an imaginative title?

“A lot of bills are basically routine,” Owen said. “There is no need to come up with a good title on bills that come up every year.”

For example, the USA PATRIOT Act makes those opposed to the legislation look unpatriotic, said Owen. In the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, “partial-birth” is not a defined a medical term but puts a gruesome image into the minds of the American public. “These are fighting words to get that bill out there,” Owen said. “The bills were named with the purpose of stimulating public support.”

While most offices agree that the name of the bill does not help the bill get through Congress, there is no denying that it fosters support among voters and advocacy groups.

“To succeed, every bill needs to get some public attention and public support so that you know what voters want,” Senate historian Don Ritchie said. “One way to do that is to come up with a name that people will remember.”

Another way to get media attention and public support is to name a bill for a specific person. For example, the Ryan White CARE Act of 1990 extended healthcare coverage and services to people living with AIDS and connected the issue to an emotional story of Ryan White, a teenager who contracted AIDS. Because people knew the story behind the bill, the theory was, they were more apt to support it.

Ritchie said legislators used to name bills after themselves. “It was a sense of prestige,” he said. “When congressmen ran for reelection, voters would look for a bill with the candidate’s name on it to measure that incumbent’s success in office.” Naming a bill after a lawmaker has become less common because it is a rare that one person is the sole sponsor of it.

However, certain bills that became law — such as campaign-finance reform (McCain-Feingold) and a major corporate reform bill (Sarbanes-Oxley) — are remembered by their sponsors, not their titles.

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