A Rose by another Name

Political Language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” George Orwell

When reading the list of the names of bills introduced by the 112th Congress, one can’t help but ask: What exactly are any of these things about? Bill naming has gone from simple and to the point to ridiculous partisan pandering. In the House alone, the word “protection” is used in eight different titles. “Fairness” and “Improvement” also deserve honorable mention. There were even two different “American Jobs Acts” proposed, each having little in common with the other.

What happened to the days of the Agriculture Adjustment Act, the Slave Trade Prohibition Act or the Civil Rights Act? These names were simple, short and devoid of qualitative language designed to sell the contents. What’s more, they actually had to do with the contents of the bills.

Now there are even organizations, such as the Blank Rome Government Relations LLC, dedicated to coming up with catchy names. It’s all about branding and selling an image. Still, this language manipulation is not without drawbacks. George W. Bush wrote that his one regret about the USA PATRIOT Act, originally called the Antiterrorism Act, was its name. Interestingly, Chris Cylke, who came up with the USA PATRIOT Act acronym, went to a high school where the sports teams were named the Patriots. The change to more creative names seemed to start with one such inside joke. One of the first creative names might be the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which may have referred to Johnny Rico in the 1931 gangster film “Little Caesar.”

With fellow lawmakers from both sides of the aisle having to vote for bills, naming bills things like the Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act and the Big Oil Welfare Repeal Act may seem counterproductive. However, only about 3% of bills are passed into law, so provocative names are a way for legislators to get their ideas out to a national audience. It might not be good for passing laws, but it is good politics.

It’s no surprise that branding is involved in naming bills, as it has spread to every other aspect of politics. Presidential nominees are living brands: they have tag lines, personalities, and sound bites which all contribute to the image they want to create. What, or who, comes to mind when you hear the word “Change?”

Additional Resources

LA Times Congress Turns Bill Titles into Acts of Exaggeration: http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jun/19/nation/la-na-0620-titles-20110620

The Wall Street Journal Congress Finds, in Passing Bills, That Names Can Never Hurt You: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703820904576057900030169850.html

CBS News Two “American Jobs Act” Bills: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20106742-503544.html

Medill Reports Chicago A Bill’s Name Is Part of the Game: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=166509

Consumer Branding in Politics: A Comparison of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama: http://www.american.edu/soc/communication/upload/Sarah-Sonies.pdf

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