FIRST IMPRESSIONS

One Redeeming Quality About the 112th Congress: Refocusing on Descriptive Rather than Evocative Short Titles - Part One

Brian Christopher Jones

Introduction

The consensus with regard to the 112th Congress is that it was a massive failure[1]: the Congress passed fewer laws than in previous years, and the contemptuous debates over the debt ceiling and the so-called "fiscal cliff" did not win this Congress many supporters. So what redeeming qualities could have been present in such an irredeemable Congress? I believe that there was at least one: a returning focus on descriptive short titles for laws, rather than a perpetuation of the evocative and tendentious short titles that have been commonplace over the past couple of decades.

A recent publication of mine explored what I called the "Congressional Short Title (R)Evolution,"[2] for over the past few decades, short titles have become more frequently used, longer, and more likely to employ acronyms or personalization; they have also increasingly used evocative words while they have decreasingly used technical, descriptive language. In fact, CQ Weekly recently reported on the revolution and highlighted my research, noting that short titles "often oversell what [laws] actually accomplish."[3] Nevertheless, by decreasing the frequency of evocative language and increasing the use of technical- and descriptive-language short titles, members of the "most worthless, incompetent, do-nothing" Congress[4] brought the lawmaking body back to the brink of rationality.

I. Methods

To determine how the 112th Congress differed from previous Congresses, I added the 283 public laws passed by that Congress into the database of public laws from the 93rd-111th Congresses that I originally used to explain the short-title revolution.[5] After separating the resolutions and acts that only used long titles, I analyzed the short-title data of the remaining legislation.

To maintain consistency with my previous piece on the short-title revolution, I use the same words to identify evocative and technical language in the short titles of the 112th Congress.[6] The evocative words correspond with "key action short titles," which legislators may use to show particular goals that they hope their bill will accomplish (e.g., prevention of a particular crime) and "attribute short titles," which legislators may use to demonstrate particular features that their legislation supposedly contains (e.g., responsibility, accountability).[7] This Essay tracked the following words (and their derivations) in the short titles of the 112th Congress: "control," "prevention," "protection," "improve," "modernize," "security," "America," "efficient," "responsible," "accountable," "freedom," and "emergency." Moreover, the technical words that Congress chose largely correspond with the drafting of legislation, and some are even prescribed for use by the House Drafting Manual.[8] This Essay tracked the following words (and their derivations): "amend," "correct," "authorize," "revision," "appropriation," and "extension." Using a standardized system such as this for tracking evocative and technical wording allowed me to easily compare the law-naming conventions of the 112th Congress to its predecessors.

II. What Changed?

A.     Evocative Versus Technical Words Used

The most significant finding regarding the 112th Congress was an increase in the technical wording and a decrease in the evocative wording used in short titles. This marks the first time that this result has occurred since the 101st-102nd Congress (1989-1993), nearly twenty years ago. This timing is significant because I previously surmised that the short-title revolution began around 1989-1993.[9] During and around these years, lawmakers began applying political marketing methods, which had been rapidly increasing since the 1950s and 1960s, to the short titles of legislation, thus increasing the use of evocative and personalized titles.[10] Additionally, through the passage of the Ryan White CARE Act of 1990,[11] lawmakers recognized that short titles could be the decisive factor in determining whether or not a bill becomes law.[12]

Figure 1. Evocative Versus Technical Words Used (93rd-112th Congresses)

Figure 1 demonstrates the relationship between technical and evocative wording well because it takes into consideration the number of laws passed in each congressional session. Excluding personalized titles, the evocative words studied in this model were used in only 23 percent of titles, while technical words were used in 32 percent of titles. This is about where evocative terms stood when the short-title revolution began around the 101st Congress, hovering in the low 20th percentile. Additionally, without adding personalized titles into the evocative category, the results produced the largest separation between evocative and technical titles since the 103rd Congress (1993-1995).[13]

Table 1.1. Tracking Evocative Words Used (93rd-112th Congresses)

Congress

Control

Prevention

Protection

Improve

Modernize

Secure(ity)

93

4

4

5

1

0

2

94

4

1

3

5

0

1

95

6

2

3

7

0

4

96

3

3

3

5

0

7

97

2

0

5

3

0

2

98

2

2

4

4

0

4

99

3

1

6

5

0

4

100

4

2

11

12

0

1

101

7

6

12

13

0

2

102

1

4

12

10

1

1

103

3

4

9

13

0

3

104

1

4

7

7

0

1

105

1

3

14

5

1

0

106

2

8

13

20

0

7

107

1

1

5

7

1

9

108

6

6

9

12

2

8

109

3

6

12

10

2

6

110

0

6

9

15

2

5

111

2

5

6

8

7

8

112

1

3

8

8

2

3

Total

55

68

148

162

16

75

 

Table 1.2. Tracking Evocative Words Used (93rd-112th Congresses)

Congress

America

Efficient

Responsible

Accountable

Freedom

Emergency

Total

93

1

0

0

0

0

7

24

94

1

0

0

1

0

8

24

95

2

0

0

0

0

6

30

96

1

2

0

0

0

2

26

97

1

0

1

0

0

2

16

98

1

0

0

0

0

3

20

99

3

1

0

0

0

4

27

100

1

0

0

0

0

5

36

101

7

2

0

0

0

3

52

102

7

2

0

0

1

10

49

103

10

1

0

1

3

4

51

104

3

0

2

6

1

4

36

105

1

0

0

1

2

4

32

106

8

0

0

2

3

3

66

107

9

1

1

2

2

4

43

108

10

2

1

4

1

6

67

109

9

4

0

6

2

10

70

110

11

1

1

6

2

3

61

111

5

1

2

2

1

1

48

112

5

3

1

1

1

0

36

Total

91

17

8

31

18

89

778

 

Table 2. Tracking Technical Words Used (93rd-112th Congresses)

Congress

Amend

Correct

Authorize

Revision

Appropriation

Extension

Total

93

20

0

13

2

35

2

72

94

32

0

16

0

32

3

83

95

39

0

25

0

29

6

99

96

38

2

23

3

20

1

87

97

24

2

14

1

13

2

56

98

40

1

15

0

15

0

71

99

38

2

19

1

8

3

71

100

47

4

17

2

13

3

86

101

41

3

26

1

26

4

101

102

51

2

24

0

28

4

109

103

38

2

12

0

28

4

84

104

14

4

11

0

18

2

49

105

15

2

23

0

21

5

66

106

18

6

15

0

20

3

62

107

14

0

17

2

19

2

54

108

8

6

21

4

16

11

66

109

10

5

29

2

17

19

82

110

14

3

25

1

5

19

67

111

4

5

13

0

13

24

59

112

3

4

15

1

7

21

51

Total

505

49

358

19

376

117

1424

 

Another major finding is that, for the first time since the 105th Congress (1997-1999), even when personalized titles were added to the evocative word total, more technical words were used per act than evocative words.[14] Regarding evocative words, the number of times words such as "security," "prevention," "improve," and "emergency" were used in short titles noticeably dropped in the 112th Congress. As for technical words, Congress continued to use the words "extend" and "authorize" frequently; however, it continued to use the words "amend," "appropriation," and "revision" relatively infrequently. In fact, the 112th Congress marked only the third time that both "amend" and "appropriation" were used in the single digits.[15]

  Figure 2. (Evocative + Personalized) Versus Technical Words Used (93rd-112th Congresses)

Please click on the following link for Part 2.

 


         *       Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Institutum Iurisprudentiae, Academia Sinica. The author would like to thank the Michigan Law Review staff for their helpful comments and assistance throughout the publication process. Additionally, the author would like to thank Alexander E. Darrah, Barrister-At-Law, for his insightful comments on an earlier draft of this Essay. Any errors in this Essay are the author's alone.

          [1].     In fact, The Week put together a list of the most insulting media labels for the 112th Congress. They are as follows: (1) "most dysfunctional ever," Sacramento Bee; (2) "crawling out with the soft whimper of failure," Politico; (3) "the most worthless, incompetent, do-nothing gathering of lawmakers in the nation's history," LA Times; (4) "took incompetence to a higher level," The Daily Beast; (5) "the do-nothing 112th Congress," Think Progress; (6) "clowns," The Washington Times; (7) "It achieved nothing," Bloomberg; (8) "most unproductive session since the 1940s," The Huffington Post; (9) "least effective and most disliked," Business Insider; and (10) "least productive in recorded history," Allvoices. Harold Maass, 10 Insulting Labels for the Outgoing 112th Congress, The Week (Jan. 3 2013), http://theweek.com/article/index/238354/10-insulting-labels-for-the-outgoing-112th-congress.

          [2].     Brian Christopher Jones, The Congressional Short Title (R)Evolution: Changing the Face of America's Public Laws, 101 Ky. L.J. Online 42-64 (2013), http://www.kentuckylawjournal.org/jones-short-title-revolution/.

          [3].     Shawn Zeller, A Bill by Any Other Name . . . May Become Law, CQ Weekly, Feb. 4, 2013, at 235, available at http://library.cqpress.com/cqweekly/weeklyreport113-000004214373.

          [4].     David Horsey, Derelict Congress Sets New Record Low for Achievement, Los Angeles Times (January 3, 2013, 5:00 AM), http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/la-na-tt-derelict-congress-20130102,0,366752.story.

          [5].     Jones, supra note 2, at 42-64.

          [6].     Id. at 57-62.

          [7].     Id. at 47-48. Of course, the evocative words used for the study are not an exhaustive list of such terms. However, in the opinion of the author, who has studied congressional short titles for many years, they represent the most common or most influential terms over the time period studied.

          [8].     Brian Christopher Jones, Drafting Proper Short Titles: Do States Have the Answer?, 23 Stan. L. & Pol'y Rev. 455, 463 (2012) ("The manual details that if an act consists mainly of amendments to another act, then it is appropriate for the short title to include ‘. . . Amendments of [year].' " (internal quotation marks omitted)).

          [9].     Jones, supra note 2, at 44; see also Jones, supra note 8, at 456-58.

        [10].     Jones, supra, note 2, at 44-45.

        [11].     Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act of 1990, Pub. L. No. 101-381, 104 Stat. 576.

        [12].     Jones, supra note 2, at 42-43; see also Henry Waxman with Joshua Green, The Waxman Report: How Congress Really Works 5-51 (2009); Joshua Green, The Heroic Story of How Congress First Confronted AIDS, The Atlantic (June 8, 2011, 4:28 PM), http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/06/the-heroic-story-of-how-congress-first-confronted-aids/240131/.

        [13].     The 103rd Congress used technical language in 41 percent of short titles and evocative language in 25 percent of short titles-a 16 percent spread.

        [14].     See infra Figure 2.

        [15].     However, the raw numbers are deceiving due to the low amount of legislation passed by the 112th Congress. A more accurate portrayal of the numbers is shown in Figures 1 and 2, which compare the amount of evocative and technical wording used to the amount of legislation passed in each congressional session.

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