The title of this bill, like many passed by Congress, misleads more than informs. And that’s no accident. Bernie Sanders voted for the Manchin-Schumer tax-and-spend-palooza bill that passed the Senate yesterday, but the Senate's only self-described socialist was brave enough to note how badly misnamed it was by its sponsors.
Sanders labeled it a so-called Inflation Reduction Act, because, he said, according to the CBO and other economic organizations that study this bill, it will, in fact, have a minimal impact on inflation. He added, Clearly, the inflation of today is pushing the average person even further behind.
Misleading the public by naming bills that won't create the results they promise — or that sometimes even lead to effects opposite to the ones promised — is an old congressional trick. Members get to title their own bills, and the House Rules Committee says the only constraint is that they must conform to the general rules of decorum.
Some names are clearly designed to make bills seem more palatable to members of the other party. Democrats tried to sell Obamacare as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But it didn't change any votes in the hyper-partisan environment of 2009 and 2010, and it didn't win a single Republican vote after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared, We have to pass the bill to find out what's in it.
Sometimes the language of the bill's title is tortured to create a catchy, easily remembered acronym. Think GIVE (Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education) or SAFE (Support America's Forgotten Equines Act), to protect wild horses. Once a controversy over Bruce Springsteen concert tickets led someone to introduce the BOSS Act for Better Oversight of Secondary Sales and Accountability in Concert Ticketing.
Sometimes bills are named a certain way in order to shame opponents into voting for them or at least blunt their efforts against it. Examples would include the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism). Or endless stimulus bills, which are often called things like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Then there was the 2013 Marketplace Fairness Act, which in reality allowed states to force online and catalogue retailers to collect sales tax. Many consumers would have thought the bill was a hostile act directed at them if it had been described properly by Congress.
Sometimes a bill's title is formulated out of sheer vanity or personal pandering. In 2004, Don Young, an infamous pork-barreling Alaska Republican and the late chairman of the House transportation committee, ordered staff to name a bill after his wife, Lu. They came up with The Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, so that its acronym was TEA-LU.
The professional staff of Congress have been known to privately complain about all the games that members play to torture the English language in their bill titles. If they spent as much time reading the bill as trying to title it, we'd be much better off, one staffer told me.
Ray Smock, a former House historian, once told the Los Angeles Times that the Congress that passed the Slave Trade Prohibition Act in 1807 could have exercised a lot more creativity in naming it. Had partisan abolitionists, using today's low standards of bill-naming, put a title to the bill, he said, it might have been called An Act to Prohibit the Dastardly and Evil Jobs-Killing Slave Trade Act.
One thing almost all professional Congress watchers and experts agree on is that while the imagination used to name bills has expanded dramatically, the quality of the legislation that ultimately passes has become sloppier and sloppier, as bills are rammed through in a few days – in the same way that the deceptively named Inflation Reduction Act passed in the Senate today.
John Fund is National Review's national-affairs reporter.