OPINION: The political motivations behind legislative nomenclature

The United States Capitol Building. (Photo courtesy of Will Rose)
The United States Capitol Building. (Photo courtesy of Will Rose)

With the nation just a few weeks away from electing our representatives in Washington, Congress is bottlenecked with legislation. Bills addressing a range of issues, from the financial crisis to foreign affairs, lay waiting for committees to act on them. In reflection of the campaigns’ tones and messages, authors of these bills have adorned their legislation with explicit titles aimed at specific issues. While ostensibly intended to summarize the bill, the art of naming legislation has evolved into a medium for loaded titles—to create hollow implications in the bills’ rhetoric.

Two underlying assumptions exist within the rhetoric incorporated into bill titles. First is that opposition to a bill suggests opposition to its goal. The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, lauded as President Obama’s first signed legislation in 2009, sought to fix the gender gap for salaries. Republican opponents were slammed for being against fair pay for women, sparking an alleged “War on Women.” It is possible that opposition may have been encouraged by sexist feelings. It is also feasible that Republicans opposed it because they felt The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act would not achieve its goal, instead maintaining that deregulated business, and not the federal government, would best be able to fix this gap. There are myriad reasons for why someone might oppose the bill; actually feeling that women should not be paid fairly only represents one of those reasons.

I am not arguing the Fair Pay Act was good or bad—I am merely highlighting how the rhetoric used in a bill’s title encourages proponents to imply that opponents are opposed to the goal of the bill. In this case, the proponents were labeling opponents of an act as sexist. The same issue extends to bills like the Middle Class Success Act—does opposing it imply one does not want the middle class to succeed? The Startup Act, Teachers and First Responders Back to Work Act and the Affordable Care Act all represent bills with titles that discourage opposition through the use of loaded rhetoric.

A second assumption embedded in these loaded titles is the belief that the act of passing the bill will achieve the stated goal of the bill’s title. As the economy becomes more dependent on engineering and healthcare jobs, politicians are investing in America’s students through the STEM Jobs Act. While the intentions fostering job creation in this bill are noble, and the goal specific and warranted, passing a bill does not create jobs. It may encourage job growth or remove obstacles to job creation, but the singular action of passing the bill will not create jobs.  A Rebuild America Act will not itself rebuild America; a Debt Free America Act will not itself make America debt-free. In a beautiful illustration of bill-writers being disconnected from the realities of the human psyche, I have little faith that the Responsible Homeowner Refinancing Act will magically make homeowners more responsible. Bills with such loaded titles only exacerbate the belief that relief exists within the passing of a bill.

These two assumptions reflect the true essence of the problems these bills attempt to fix—namely, a culture conducive to that problem. If women and men are not paid fairly, it is ultimately because the culture has evolved to allow for this. If America is debt ridden, it is because its culture has allowed, through irresponsible action and inaction, for the consumption of debt. If we, in 2012, truly believe we no longer want to allow society to persist with these burdens, we must face these cultures and change them from within, not without.

So what can we learn at Mason? The issues we face as a community cannot be solved through mere titular solutions; our problems cannot be legislated away. The creation of an institution or the passing of a resolution is nice and can help unify and clarify the goals of a community. But the achievement of a goal comes from empowering human beings--individuals intentionally working step by step. Therefore, the University must remember that, as it develops a strategic vision and decides what it wants to look like tomorrow, the success of this mission will ultimately rely on both the interpersonal and individual work of students, faculty, staff as well as many other actors. Investments must be made in people, not just ideas; relationships, not just missions. We cannot properly invest in these first steps if we do not comprehend the end goal, and that end goal is not achievable if we do not invest in these first steps. In this way, Mason can begin to develop towards what it will be tomorrow.

Opinions expressed in this column are solely the beliefs of the writer. 

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