Congressional Democrats are baking some of their most controversial policy proposals into American-as-apple-pie bill titles as they try to enact a stridently liberal agenda with razor-thin majorities in both houses.
The For the People Act, the Equality Act, and even the American Rescue Act are all innocuous or even noble-sounding bills that polarize the deeply divided Congress and also allow Democrats to portray Republicans as opposing truth, justice, and the American way.
“The best names on legislation tell you what the bill does and why what it does is important,” said Republican strategist John Feehery. “Some names, like the Patriot Act, become unintentionally ironic — is taking away people’s civil liberties really patriotic? Others, like For the People, are completely meaningless because who could be against it? When you go overboard on the rhetoric, it backfires.”
There is broad support for the central premise of the American Rescue Act — that a new round of federal spending and tax breaks are needed to help boost an economy weighed down by the pandemic and government policies designed to slow the spread of the virus. There is only dispute over the $1.9 trillion price tag coming on the heels of past COVID-19 relief spending and whether some of the items contained therein are germane to the stimulus task at hand.
Some Republicans would like to see projects they deem too similar to pork stripped from the legislation and have called for an aid package closer to $600 billion. President Biden has rejected such counteroffers as too small, and Senate Democrats have proceeded to use budget reconciliation to pass their bill without GOP help, if need be.
The Equality Act is designed to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories in federal civil rights laws, going further than last year’s Bostock decision by the Supreme Court. While supporters argue it is an important advancement of LGBT rights, critics say that it, at a minimum, has uncertain implications for religious liberty and existing legal protections based on biological sex.
Opponents object that the bill could allow biological men to compete in public school sports programs for women or imperil the status of religious organizations with traditional views on gender or marriage. The largest denominations in the country subscribe to such teachings. The legislation could expose religious nonprofit groups and educational institutions to costly litigation.
The For the People Act is similarly promoted as an effort to ensure greater voter participation transparency in election campaigns. But opponents maintain it is a partisan maneuver that will effectively wipe away many state-level election laws to the electoral benefit of Democratic candidates. The bill would halt many state purges of voter rolls to remove those who are no longer eligible, roll back a number of voter ID laws, and expand definitions of what constitutes “electioneering communications” to include issue-related advertisements unrelated or only tangentially related to elections.
Whatever the merits of these bills — Democrats argue the For the People Act is necessary to combat voter suppression and foreign election interference — they are more divisive along party lines than their rosy titles indicate.
The question is how much it matters. “I honestly don’t think it makes much of a difference,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant, a former communications adviser to Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “Bills are inevitably judged by what they do, not what they’re called. Does anybody really remember what Trump’s tax cuts were called or what the COVID stimulus bills last year were called?”
That doesn’t mean a lot of thought and study don’t go into naming important legislative items.
“During the Contract with America, Republicans spent a lot of time thinking about what to name the legislation, and they actually poll-tested the names to make the biggest impact,” Feehery said. “And you know what? It worked. What the Democrats are doing now is typical of the Democrats: too much emotion and not enough actual substance.”
Republicans argued at the time of the 1994 elections that each item in the Contract had at least 60% support nationally, according to their polling.
“More important than what the bills are technically named is how they’re actually branded by each party’s communications efforts,” Conant said.