Washington

Politicians use naming of legislation as part of greater strategy


When congressional Democrats named their massive election overhaul bill the “For the People Act,” there was a bit of bravado and a hint of a challenge: who could possibly vote against a proposal with such bold pretensions?

It turns out plenty of Republicans can.

H.R. 1, as the bill is officially designated, is nothing if not grand in its designs, wiping away state election practices and creating a national standard, tilted toward Democrats’ ideas, for who can vote, when they can vote, and how they can vote. For Democrats it’s the chance to save democracy. For Republicans, it’s a craven political hit job.

And it has those inside and outside the Beltway wondering what’s in a name.

Time was when bills followed more conventional practices for names. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights act of 1965, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act all told the public a pretty clear story of what they were about.

But in recent decades lawmakers have started getting creative. Figuring out witty acronyms is one popular pastime.

Democrats last week for example introduced a bill last week looking to undermine Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s push to restructure the U.S. Postal Service. They dubbed the bill: the Delivering Envelopes Judiciously On-time Year-round Act — or DEJOY Act.

“You have two schools of thought at play when you go about introducing and naming a bill — one is trying to find a name that reinforces what you are trying to do, and the other is to settle on something that will drive the opposition nuts,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic consultant who worked for former Sens. Harry Reid and Edward D. Kennedy.

One of the lasting winners in the naming realm is the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act. It’s better known by its acronym, the DREAM Act.

First introduced 20 years ago and intended to grant citizenship rights to immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children, it has not become law, but has burrowed its way into American politics, with those who would benefit dubbing themselves “Dreamers,” and becoming one of the most powerful interest groups in the country.

Not a day goes by on Capitol Hill without lawmakers demanding action on behalf of the “Dreamers.”

Mr. Manley recalled the scramble to name Democrats massive health care overhaul in 2009.

“We were given a copy of it a night before,” Mr. Manley said. “They said, ‘Have at it, we need a name by 9 o’clock in the morning.’”

The name that eventually emerged was the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It’s better known as Obamacare, first used derisively, and now just accepted as a nickname.

“Some bills have boring names that are superseded by the media and the opposition,” said John Feehery, who worked for former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert.

Other bill names practically dare lawmakers to cast a “No” vote.

Such was the case with the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism” Act. That is better known by its acronym, the USA PATRIOT Act, adopted in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks to broadly expand the government’s snooping powers.

Then-Sen. Russ Feingold was the sole senator to vote against the bill.

“I went down to the well [of the Senate] where you vote, and I wasn’t completely aware that they had changed the name from some general anti-terrorism name to the USA Patriot Act,” the Wisconsin Democrat told C-SPAN in a 2005 appearance. “So it was a lonely moment to be the only one to vote against it.”

Mr. Feingold’s own name is immortalized in legislation.

He and Sen. John McCain were the chief Senate sponsors of what was formally known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, the last major overhaul of campaign finance, which still governs campaign cash flows to this day.

To campaign finance lawyers it’s known by its acronym, pronounced “bick-ra.” But to most others it’s known as “McCain-Feingold.”

Sponsors often get their names attached to bills. Legislation to clean up Wall Street after the Enron scandal early this century had lengthy and boring names in the House and Senate, but when they wrote a compromise it became known as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act after the two chief negotiators. In financial circles it was dubbed SOX.

Nearly a decade later, after more financial mayhem, Congress was back with the Dodd-Frank bill, again nicknamed after its chief sponsors.

That tradition is not new, particularly for financial regulation. The Sherman Antitrust Act, adopted in 1890 to combat corporate monopolies, was named for Ohio Sen. John Sherman.

Bill-writers will often add homages to colleagues and former colleagues in legislation. Thus the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, Sen. Patrick Leahy’s version of the For the People Act in the last Congress, which honored the late civil rights hero.

McCain, as he was ailing in 2018, was honored with the John S. McCain Defense Authorization Act, written just months before his death.

Still, the grandiosity of Democrats dubbing a deeply partisan elections bill the “For the People Act” rankles Republicans.

“The ‘For the People Act’ should be called the ‘For the Politicians Act,’” former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a Republican, complained on Twitter.

Republicans are just as guilty of the name games.

Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican who’s now the most senior member of the House, once wrote a massive transportation bill he gave the clunky name of the Safe Accountable Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU. It turned out he was immortalizing his wife, Lu Young.

Former Rep. Mike Honda, a California Democrat, once spoofed his colleagues for April Fool’s Day by announcing he was creating the Accountability and Congressional Responsibility On Naming Your Motions (ACRONYM) Act, which would have banned lawmakers from using tortuous names to get to the right acronym.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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