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Let 'em spell it out: Congress has gone acronym crazy

June 06, 2013|By Michael McGough
  • Demonstrators show support for the New York state DREAM Act at a rally in New York City.
Demonstrators show support for the New York state DREAM Act at a rally in… (John Moore / AFP )

The Times on Thursday editorialized in favor of a bill in Congress that would call on states to review laws that criminalize conduct by people infected by HIV. While the bill itself may be worthy, its title is an example of an obnoxious trend.

Our editorial refers to the legislation, introduced by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), as the Repeal HIV Discrimination Act of 2013. But “Repeal” should actually be spelled “REPEAL” because it’s an acronym for “Repeal Existing Policies that Encourage and Allow Legal HIV Discrimination Act.” OK, you have to toss out the words “HIV Discrimination Act,” but you get the idea.

The REPEAL Act joins other pieces of legislation that some poor congressional staffer had to labor over to make the initials fit the name. The most infamous is the USA PATRIOT ACT, “USA PATRIOT" standing for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.” (The Patriot Act, as most reporters refer to it, is in the news this week with the revelation that it was used to pry millions of phone records from Verizon.)

Then there is the campaign spending bill I write about a lot -- the DISCLOSE Act. “DISCLOSE” stands for “Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections.” Oh, and let’s not forget the DREAM Act that would legalize children brought to this country in violation of immigration laws. “DREAM” is not just what those kids do when they fantasize about becoming citizens; it stands for "Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors."

Ths acronymizing of bill titles is not as offensive as another trend in legislative nomenclature, the practice of naming bills after victims of crime (“Megan’s Law”). That trend is offensive not just esthetically but because it is based on the fallacy that laws are primarily about obtaining justice (often posthumous justice) for an individual. Also, naming a bill for a dead child or a rape victim is a way to drum up votes.

Ordinarily I’m averse to amending the Constitution. But I’d make an exception for an amendment to prohibit acronyms in the names of bills. We could call it the BAN Amendment -- for "Banish Acronyms Now."


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