Immigration legislation’s title shows: On Capitol Hill, bill naming has gone overboard

July 23, 2013

House Republicans abhor the recently approved Senate immigration bill.

Some called the 1,200-page piece of legislation too big. Others have disparaged it as “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.

What they never do is call it by its proper name: the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.

That mouthful contains a singular truth: Bill names have become more than bland descriptors, or even hokey monikers. They’re marketing strategies designed to sell a product.

“It’s how messaging works,” said Brendan Daly, a former Democratic House leadership aide who is now an executive vice president at the public relations firm Ogilvy Washington. Bill names get “repeated over and over again” in forums from Twitter to the Senate floor, he notes. Whenever possible, you want the name to reflect the best spin.

Let’s diagram that immigration bill’s name: The phrase “Border Security” is aimed directly at conservatives concerned primarily about shoring up enforcement. Next up is “Economic Opportunity,” a nod to the near-requirement these days that every bill has to be about job creation.

And “Immigration Modernization” is a twist on the usual phrase, “immigration reform.” It seems that the term “modernization” is preferable to “reform,” which has a soupcon of the revolutionary to it.

Three phrases, each carefully calibrated for precise political effect.

“Clearly, that’s designed to touch every constituency they needed,” said Steve Bell, a longtime Republican aide who is now a senior director at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Contrast the Senate bill’s meaning-laden moniker with its forerunner, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007. Snooze. So 2007.

The House, on the other hand, is entertaining bills that are far more modest than the Senate’s, and the bill names reflect a far different aim.

Among the House bills is the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act (its acronym: SAFE). There is also the Legal Workforce Act, which has a no-nonsense flair. And then there is the Supplying Knowledge Based Immigrants and Lifting Levels of STEM Visas Act — the SKILLS Act, which takes acronym play to new, if not entirely grammatical, heights. (Though it’s not to be confused with another, unrelated, SKILLS Act, which stands for Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills.)

Acronyms such as these are a staple of bill names, since they can be as catchy and memorable as an ad jingle, though efforts to create them can lead to awkward contortions. Take a bill introduced this year: the Disclosure of Information on Spending on Campaigns Leads to Open and Secure Elections Act of 2013. Far easier to call it the DISCLOSE Act.

Other contributions to the alphabet soup don’t even really work, such as the Preventing Recurring Trade Evasion and Circumvention Act, which is billed as the PROTECT Act, though it’s unclear where the shorthand’s O comes from.

“You can definitely get too cute with it,” Daly said.

Acronyms are only the start. Just last week, the House voted on the Fairness for American Families Act, which would repeal a key provision of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Fairness for American Families passed on a party-line vote, though it has the benefit of sounding like something no lawmaker in his right mind would vote against. (How can you not want fairness? For American families?)

Perhaps because it at once suggests a problem and an equitable solution, “fairness” has become a popular buzzword in bill naming. It is to legislation what “light” is to diet foods: Just slapping it on a label implies that what’s inside is good. Dozens of bills introduced by this Congress include the word, including the Dental Insurance Fairness Act, the Student Loan Fairness Act and the Disabled Veterans Nutrition Fairness Act. Even wild animals are apparently in need of fairness — see the Polar Bear Conservation and Fairness Act.

Savvy bill naming isn’t a new development, though the immigration bills are a case study in just how pervasive it has become.

Bell said newer members of Congress, with their constant campaign mentality and media prowess, are likely to take the practice to new heights. “As this younger group comes in, they’re more media savvy,” he said. “You’ll see more and more of these kinds of clever names.”

Greg Lemon, press secretary for second-term Rep. Joseph J. Heck (R-Nev.), said that acronyms and shorthand bill names make for good Twitter hashtags. “We live in a 140-character world now,” he said. So when he tweets about legislation banning the importation of an invasive species of mussels that is harming lakes in Heck’s district, Lemon can simply identify it as the snappy #PLAQ, which stands for the Protecting Lakes Against Quaggas Act.

Brevity is a good thing. But can a bill name really influence the legislation’s ultimate fate?

Absolutely, said Kevin Lane Keller, a professor of marketing at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. Keller said that names, whether used to describe tomato sauce or policy proposals, can change perceptions. “Branding is using a small set of words, carefully chosen, to emphasize certain things. How you label anything changes the way people see it,” he said. “Everything, even politics, has an overlay of branding.”

He said he often tells students about psychological studies in which participants read identical stories with varying titles. Their impressions of what the stories are “about” differ based on the story’s title.

Put another way, if passing laws is sausage-making, bill names can help you tell customers whether they’re getting a spicy Italian or a smoky kielbasa.

And while many bills bear painstakingly crafted titles, sometimes they’re simply a matter of happenstance. Bell recalled the genesis of what’s now known as COBRA, the law that provides for continuing health-insurance coverage. He remembered that in the beginning the bill was simply OBRA, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act.

In a meeting with colleagues, someone had written the name of the bill in marker on an easel-size notepad. “I suddenly had this thought and said, ‘It should be COBRA,’ ” said Bell, then the staff director for the Senate Budget Committee. He thought “COBRA” would roll off tongues a bit easier. “And someone asks, ‘Well, what the hell does the C stand for?’ And I thought a minute and said, ‘Consolidated!’ ”

Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.
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