How Not To Name a Bill

January 12th, 2011

On Tuesday, Jess Bravin wrote a good piece in the Journal titled Congress Finds, in Passing Bills, That Names Can Never Hurt You. This article laments the often-unhelpful names assigned to pieces of legislation. In particular, it laments naming laws after victims of crimes.

Mr. Duncan also complains about the proliferation of laws named after crime, accident and disease victims.

“It’s just not a good way to do legislation, to exploit some terrible thing that has been done to some child,” he says of statutes like the AMBER Alert Act, which refers both to an abducted child and America’s Missing-Broadcast Emergency Response (and is itself part of the Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today, or PROTECT, Act).

There’s an interesting bit about the origin of the RICO Act.

The turning point may have come in 1970, with the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The acronym spells the name of Edward G. Robinson’s character in the 1931 gangster picture, “Little Caesar.” “I can’t confirm or deny” any intentional reference to Johnny Rico, says Notre Dame law professor G. Robert Blakey, who drafted the legislation as an aide to Sen. John McClellan (D., Ark.). He adds: “The only thing I can tell you is that I’m a film buff.”

Today’s WSJ Law blog has a follow-up piece has a piece called Like Those Catchy Names for Statutes? Here’s a Man Who Doesn’t. Brian Jones,a George Mason alum, studied “bill naming.” He has 5 tips how to clean up the title of bills:

  1. Be Accurate: “Be as descriptive as possible without being unduly emotive, political, tangential or otherwise controversial in any manner
  2. Avoid Policy Statements: Don’t make “suggestive or symbolic assumptions about what it will or will not accomplish.
  3. Keep It Impersonal: Don’t put the names of victims, members of Congress “or anybody who could be used to assist or hinder the legislation.
  4. No Acronyms
  5. Be Accountable: The sponsor alone should title the bill, “giving ultimate deference to the impartiality, ease of reference and nonpolitical nature of the statute book.”

#2 is especially apt. The other day I noted that Ted Frank has a good rule for interpreting a bill based on its title: ““My rule of thumb is a strong presumption that any law named after a victim is poor public policy enacted by legislators who confuse voting against a law with voting against an innocent person.” I think this holds nicely.