How acronyms invaded Congress – The Atlantic

Judging by the titles of the bills they propose, members of Congress are occupying a space between used-car salesman and poet. Over the past two years, lawmakers in the 117th Congress have introduced the DAY LIGHT Act (Daylight All Year Leads to Ideal Gains in Happiness and Temperament), the ZOMBIE Act (Zeroing Out Money for Buying Influence after Elections), the SCAMPER Act (Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy), and the GIVE MILK Act (Give more variety to ensure milk enters children’s lives). Some acronyms are so long that I can sum up the bill’s message in fewer letters: the CONFUSION law (anti-China), the SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP Act (pro-UK), the AWARENESS Act (anti-vax).

These reverse-engineered acronyms, or “backronyms,” are a staple on Capitol Hill. Two of the biggest laws in recent years were the CARES Act, for pandemic relief, and the CHIPS for America Act, for semiconductor manufacturing. Since early 2021, members of Congress have introduced two separate AMIGOS laws, two PROTECT Florida laws, and four SHIELD laws. These naming devices may seem silly and contrived, especially when compared to the general sobriety of policymaking in Washington. Yet congressional backronyms have been on the rise for years: I wrote a computer program to check the titles of legislation for acronyms that spell complete words, and found that about 10% of bills and of resolutions introduced in the past two years had backronymic names – up from about one in 20 a decade ago and less than 1% in the late 1990s. The proportion has increased with each Congress since at least 2001.

If this trend continues, the next Congress, elected this week, will be the heaviest backronym yet. So how did the acronym come to infiltrate American politics?

In simpler times, initials were just initials. The New Deal, perhaps the most famous legislative package in American history, created a host of ugly bureaucratic shortcuts – NLRB, SSA, CCC, TVA, etc. – but none of them intentionally spelled words. (If they had, perhaps Social Security would have been established by the ELDERCARE Act.) The first of these titles, according to one exam by Christopher Sagers, professor of law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, was the International Development Act of 1950, or ASSISTANCE. Even this modest pun was an outlier: Sagers only had three backronyms in the 70s and 80s.

Meanwhile, in 2022, members of Congress have routinely introduced three or more backronyms into a daytime. That all started to change in 2001 with what is still perhaps the most infamous backronym of all time: the USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism). The law encompasses almost every aspect of the appeal of backronyms. “Patriotism” is a slogan that is so irreproachable that it is arguably even manipulative; in terms of strategy, it is more difficult for opponents to vote against the USA PATRIOT Act than, say, the Enhanced Security Act.

If the USA PATRIOT Act had been passed a decade earlier, chances are it wouldn’t have been a backronym. Like so much else in American politics, partisanship and technology have collided to make these types of titles popular. According to Stanford economist Matthew Gentzkow, who has to analyse congressional speech. And with the advent of Congressional proceedings broadcast on C-SPAN years earlier, the use of music videos in commercials and media coverage began to emphasize successful sound bites “pushing toward compact language and digestible,” Gentzkow told me. Indeed, he found a sharp increase in partisan rhetoric on the floor of Congress during this period.

These twin forces—a marketing approach to rhetoric, combined with broadcasting—have primed Congress for backronym mania: Witty acronyms are a subset of the short, persuasive phrases that best grab people’s attention. voters and are easy to weaponize for partisan gains. Acronyms reveal how “political marketing has infiltrated not just our politics but also our law”, says Brian Christopher Jones, a law professor at the University of Sheffield who has studied congressional backronyms.

Congress has never looked back. In the 2000s, partisanship worsened as cable and internet news took on greater prominence; an acronym was perfect for a catchy email subject line, Jones told me. My analysis, as well as that of the data scientist Noah Veltmanfound that the proportion of bills introduced increased steadily in the early 2010s, with notable titles like the CAN SPAM Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act 2003, the FIRST Act of 2006 (Prematurity Research Expansion and Education for Mothers who delivery Infants Early), and the DREAM Law on development, assistance and education of foreign minors.

Every new revolution in digital media seems to compress communication and make backronyms more popular. FRIES is a social media hashtag; semiconductor manufacturing is melatonin at the right time. “You live in a Twitter world,” John Lawrence, former chief of staff to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, told me. “There’s a correlation between fewer keystrokes and how much someone will read something.” (This is presumably true for STOP PUTIN Act, but maybe not RETROACTIVE Policy and CLINICAL TREATMENT Acts.)

The push towards backronyms is part of a larger shift in the way representatives, aides and lobbyists Last name laws. Lawrence associates backward-looking acronyms, such as CHIPS and CARES, with other attempts at catchy rhetoric from Congress: two of Biden’s biggest non-backronym bills, Build Back Better and the Cut Inflation Act , are similar efforts to merge slogans and politics. “A lot of congressmen think of votes in 30-second ads” or in emails or tweets, Keith Pemrick, a longtime legislative director to a Democratic representative who now runs a lobbying firm, told me. . “Is there anything positive I can run? Is there anything negative my opponent can run against me? These catchy names lend themselves to that. At this point, backronyms have become one of the very few things in Washington that politicians of all stripes can agree on – my analysis found that Democrats and Republicans are both introducing massive amounts of legislation bearing acronyms.

But lawmakers’ fixation on backronyms doesn’t necessarily mean they work. A study hypothetical bill names released this year revealed that a backronym (such as SPIRIT) was about twice as easy for voters to remember as a generic title (“An Act to Protect Individual Rights in Theology”). But only one single digit percentage bills do indeed become laws, and with so many confounding factors, it’s hard to know if a backronym itself plays a role in the passage of a bill. Perhaps the extreme use of backronyms simply reflects how congressional staffers and journalists simply need to log off Twitter. “People in politics, media, academia all overestimate the importance of Twitter to the general public,” Gentzkow said.

Still, former staffers I spoke with, Lawrence and Pemrick, believe these kinds of titles are essential. Consider the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which was immediately dubbed “Obamacare.” If it had been called the Americare Act, as Lawrence suggested at the time, it might not have been so easy for Republicans to rebrand. If nicknames and partisan battles are inevitable, it is better to control the brand image from the start. That’s what the Pemrick lobbying firm is trying to do with the ASSISTANT Act (Homes for Every Local Protector, Educator, and Responder), which aims to create a mortgage insurance program for firefighters, paramedics, and teachers, among others. “It’s much easier to just say ‘HELPER’s Law’ and it creates a buzz within these organizations and potential supporters on the road, than HR 3172,” Pemrick said. (For what it’s worth, stocks with smart, pronounceable names — like BABY and GEEK —reliably outperform the market.)

As expected, backronyms have become easy targets of contempt (the title of the Sagers article includes the clause “the United States Congress is becoming more and more silent”). Of course, backronyms can appear performative and vapid at best, misleading and manipulative at worst, especially when the title of a bill does not reflect its content. These are symptoms of Congress’s decline in a superficial partisan shouting match; they’re condescending, assuming voters can’t handle long headlines. In 2015, then representing Mike Honda of California even announcement an ACRONYM (Accountability and Congressional Responsibility On Naming Your Motions) law to ban backronyms as an April Fool’s joke to joke.

But maybe backronyms aren’t all bad, or at least not all of them. “Cutting inflation” is a much more manipulative name for a climate bill than “CHIPS” for a semiconductor bill. When in the service of serious legislation — billions of dollars in pandemic relief, for example — a tactical headline seems like a genuinely useful tool, a way for people to cut through a deluge of information. . After all, readable acronyms beat obtuse legalese. And for a sadly boring branch of government, backronyms are refreshingly creative, even charming: not everyone could come up with the STABLE ENGINEERING (Standardizing testing and accountability ahead of major elections by giving voters the information needed for unfettered selection) and TO LISTEN (Winning the endorsement of the external sound database of the voice kept on people) Acts. At best, are backronyms really that DUMB?

About Michael S. Montanez

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