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The Fine Art of Legislation Appellation

If you want your bill to be noticed, a snappy acronym beats S. 1955 any old time.

May 08, 2006|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When Sen. Maria Cantwell proposed a federal law on the arcane subject of energy markets, the Washington state Democrat knew her bill would be competing for attention with hundreds of others. So calling it S. 2015 just wouldn't do.

Two staff members were asked to devise something better. The effort "involved two napkins, two pens and two Miller Lites," said Charla Neuman, an aide to the Democratic senator.

The result was a mouthful: the Electricity Needs Rules and Oversight Now Act. But it gave Cantwell's bill a snappy acronym with political punch: the ENRON Act.

To haiku, the limerick and the cameo brooch, Washington has added its own contribution to the diminutive arts.

Remember Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, the deficit-fighting bill? Or Sarbanes-Oxley, the corporate reform law? Bills named for lawmakers are pretty much passe. These days, an attention-getting acronym -- the political equivalent of a vanity license plate -- is in.

And so Congress has cracked down on unwanted e-mails with the CAN-SPAM Act -- for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing. The trickiest part of writing that name, said Mike Rawson, a former Senate aide, was coming up with "non-solicited" to fill the N and the S slots.

As gas prices began to soar, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) announced plans to introduce the PUMP Act, for Prevent Unfair Manipulation of Prices. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) named her bill to require labels on certain fragrances the SNIFF Act, short for the Safe Notification and Information for Fragrances Act. But lawmakers turned up their noses at the idea.

What do you call a bill to sanitize Congress of the current lobbying scandal?

The CLEAN UP Act -- the memorable shorthand by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for his Curtailing Lobbyist Effectiveness through Advance Notification, Updates and Posting Act.

"You'd be surprised at how much taxpayer time is spent in offices coming up with clever names for bills," said Michael Franc, a former congressional staff member.

Though some bills in the past did have acronyms, they rarely grabbed the public's attention. The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, or OBRA, for example, is remembered by few people other than Washington's most die-hard number-crunchers.

Now, acronyms help explain what the bill is all about. They are proof that even bill names have become part of Washington's all-consuming political spin.

"If it helps people remember your legislation, I think it serves a useful purpose," said Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.). "But I'm starting to think people are starting to spend more time coming up with a clever acronym than they are worrying about the substance and the impact of the legislation they write."

Some bill titles dare opponents to vote against them. That is what the drafters of the USA PATRIOT Act had in mind when they named the controversial anti-terrorism law. The title is an acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.

"Naming something the USA PATRIOT Act makes it sound like if you're against it, or have problems with parts of it, you're being unpatriotic," said Tim Edgar, a former lawyer with the ACLU, which objected to certain provisions of the law.

(His group was not immune to the acronym game. It backed a bill to "fix" parts of the Patriot legislation, calling it the SAFE Act, for Security and Freedom Enhancement Act.)

At times, bill titles can entail a touch of vanity. Last year's federal highway bill has become a famous piece of bill-naming lore.

Holed up in a basement office with a chalkboard and a dictionary, a half-dozen staff members of the House Transportation Committee spent a Saturday afternoon working up a title for the legislation, recalled a congressional staff member who did not want to be named because he was not authorized to discuss the bill-naming effort publicly.

One challenge was to fulfill a directive from the bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). He wanted the bill title to honor his wife, whose name is Lu.

After an afternoon's work, the staff settled on an answer to Young's challenge: the Transportation Equity Act -- A Legacy for Users. Its acronym would be TEA-LU.

Finding the right words to match the LU was tricky.

"They came up with the 'users' pretty quickly," said the staff member. "The 'legacy' for the L came much later in the session, and they did eventually pull out a dictionary and start going through the Ls for some ideas."

Clever as their work was, the bill title earned Young a measure of scorn. USA Today, complaining about the pork in the bill, called it "a real Lulu -- of excess."

In addition to crafting catchy names, lawmakers often fight for certain bill numbers. House bill 1040, for example, would eliminate the current income tax and impose a flat tax in its place.

But numbers work only so often. So lawmakers have drafted the PETS Act, requiring officials to consider pets in disaster planning; the SAFE CALL Act, to prevent the sale of confidential phone records; and the SOS Act, a cargo container security bill.

Those are shorthand for the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act; the Stop Attempted Fraud Against Everyone's Cell and Land Lines Act; and the Sail Only if Scanned Act.

Even a catchy name can take a bill only so far. Of the thousands of bills introduced in each session, only a few hundred ever make it into law.

Still, Congress has become practiced enough that it could write a book on the art of bill-naming. The first chapter might include START, the Simplification Through Additional Reporting Tax Act of 2006.

And the epilogue? It would have to mention last year's Elimination of Neglected Diseases Act -- or the END.

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