How Did America End Up With the Z.O.M.B.I.E. Act?
Congress sure does love a snappy acronym.
Judging by the titles of bills they propose, members of Congress occupy a space between used-car salesperson and poet. Over the past two years, lawmakers in the 117th Congress have introduced the DAYLIGHT Act (Daylight All Year Leads to Ideal Gains in Happiness and Temperament), the ZOMBIE Act (Zeroing Out Money for Buying Influence after Elections), the CROOK Act (Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy), and the GIVE MILK Act (Giving Increased Variety to Ensure Milk Into the Lives of Kids). Some acronym names are so long that I can summarize the bill’s message in fewer letters: the CONFUCIUS Act (anti-China), the SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP Act (pro-U.K.), the CONSCIENCE Act (anti-vax).
These reverse-engineered acronyms, or “backronyms,” are inescapable on Capitol Hill. Two of the biggest laws of the past few 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 Acts, two PROTECT Florida Acts, and four SHIELD Acts. These naming devices can seem silly and contrived, especially when compared with the general soberness of Washington policy making. Yet congressional backronyms have been on the rise for years: I wrote a computer program to check legislation titles for acronyms that spell out complete words, and found that roughly 10 percent of bills and resolutions introduced over the past two years have had backronym names—up from about one in 20 a decade ago and less than 1 percent in the late 1990s. The proportion has risen with every Congress since at least 2001.
If that trend holds, the next Congress, elected this week, will be the most backronym heavy 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 bureaucratic and ugly shorthands—NLRB, SSA, CCC, TVA, and so on—but none of them intentionally spelled out words. (If they had, maybe Social Security would have been established by the ELDERCARE Act.) The first such title, according to a review by Christopher Sagers, a law professor at Cleveland–Marshall College of Law, was the 1950 Act for International Development, or AID. Even this modest wordplay was an outlier: Sagers counted only three backronyms across the ’70s and ’80s.
Meanwhile, in 2022, members of Congress have regularly introduced three or more backronyms in one day. Everything began to change in 2001 with what may still be 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 nearly every aspect of the allure of backronyms. “Patriotism” makes for a slogan that is so unimpeachable it’s arguably even manipulative; as a matter of strategy, it’s harder for opponents to vote against the USA PATRIOT Act than, say, the Enhanced Security Act.
If the USA PATRIOT Act had passed a decade earlier, chances are it would not have been a backronym. Like so much else in American politics, partisanship and technology collided to make these sorts of titles popular. Starting in the ’90s, politicians began treating elections like advertising campaigns and used focus groups to dial in the most effective rhetoric, according to the Stanford economist Matthew Gentzkow, who has analyzed congressional speeches. And with the advent of broadcast congressional proceedings on C-SPAN years earlier, the use of video clips in advertisements and media coverage began emphasizing successful sound bites “pushing toward compact, digestible language,” 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—primed Congress for backronym mania: Witty acronyms are a subset of the brief, persuasive phrases that best catch voters’ attention and are easy to weaponize for partisan gains. Acronyms reveal how “political marketing has seeped into not just our politics but also into our law,” says Brian Christopher Jones, a lecturer of law at the University of Sheffield who has studied congressional backronyms.
Congress never looked back. In the 2000s, partisanship worsened as both cable news and the internet rose to greater prominence; an acronym was perfect for an eye-grabbing email subject line, Jones told me. My analysis, as well as that of the data scientist Noah Veltman, found that the proportion of introduced bills grew steadily through the early 2010s, with notable titles including the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing), the PREEMIE Act of 2006 (Prematurity Research Expansion and Education for Mothers who deliver Infants Early), and the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors).
Every new revolution in digital media seems to compress communication—and make backronyms more popular. CHIPS is a social-media hashtag; semiconductor manufacturing is well-timed melatonin. “You’re living in a Twitter world,” John Lawrence, a former chief of staff for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, told me. “There’s a correlation between the fewest number of keystrokes and how much someone will read something.” (This is presumably true of the STOP PUTIN Act, but maybe not of the RETROACTIVE Policy and CLINICAL TREATMENT Acts.)
The push toward backronyms is part of a larger change in how representatives, aides, and lobbyists name laws. Lawrence lumps reverse-engineered acronyms, such as CHIPS and CARES, with other attempts at snappy congressional rhetoric: Two of Biden’s biggest non-backronym bills, Build Back Better and the Inflation Reduction Act, are similar efforts to fuse slogans and policy. “A lot of members of Congress think about votes in 30-second ads” or in emails or tweets, Keith Pemrick, a longtime legislative director for a Democratic representative who now runs a lobbying firm, told me. “Is there something positive I can run? Is there something negative my opponent can run against me? These catchy names lend to that.” At this point, backronyms have become one of the very rare things in Washington that politicians of all stripes can agree on—my analysis found that Democrats and Republicans both introduce tremendous amounts of acronym-titled legislation.
But lawmakers’ fixation on backronyms doesn’t necessarily mean they work. One study of hypothetical bill names published this year found that a backronym (such as SPIRIT) was about twice as easy for voters to recall as a generic title (“Statute Protecting Individual Rights in Theology”). But only a single-digit percentage of bills actually become laws, and with so many confounding factors, it’s hard to know whether a backronym itself plays a role in a bill’s passage. Perhaps the extreme use of backronyms simply reflects how congressional staffers and journalists need to just log off Twitter. “People in politics, media, academia all just overestimate how important Twitter is for the general public,” Gentzkow said.
Still, the former staffers I spoke with, Lawrence and Pemrick, believe these sorts of titles are essential. Consider the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which was immediately slammed as “Obamacare.” Had it been called the Americare Act, as Lawrence said he suggested at the time, it might not have been so easy for Republicans to rebrand. If nicknames and partisan battles are inevitable, better to control branding out of the gate. That’s what Pemrick’s lobbying firm is trying to do with the HELPER 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 is much easier to just say ‘the HELPER Act,’ and it creates a buzz within these organizations and potential supporters down the road, rather than H.R. 3172,” Pemrick said. (For what it’s worth, stocks with clever, pronounceable names—such as BABY and GEEK—reliably outperform the market.)
Predictably, backronyms have become easy targets of scorn (the title of Sagers’s paper includes the clause “the Congress of the United States Grows Increasingly D.U.M.B.”). Sure, backronyms can appear performative and vapid at best, misleading and manipulative at worst—especially when a bill’s title doesn’t reflect its content. They are symptoms of Congress’s decline into a shallow, partisan shouting match; they are condescending, assuming that voters can’t handle long titles. In 2015, then-Representative Mike Honda of California even announced an ACRONYM Act (Accountability and Congressional Responsibility On Naming Your Motions) to ban backronyms as an April Fools’ joke.
But maybe backronyms aren’t all bad—or at least aren’t uniquely so. “Inflation Reduction” is a far more manipulative name for a climate bill than “CHIPS” is for a semiconductor bill. When in service of serious legislation—trillions of dollars in pandemic relief, for example—a tactical title seems like a genuinely useful tool, a way for people to cut through a deluge of information. After all, legible acronyms beat obtuse legalese. And for an infamously boring branch of government, backronyms are refreshingly creative, even charming: Not everyone could come up with the STABLE GENIUS (Standardizing Testing and Accountability Before Large Elections Giving Electors Necessary Information for Unobstructed Selection) and EAVESDROP (Earning Approval of Voice External Sound Databasing Retained on People) Acts. At their best, are backronyms really that D.U.M.B.?