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The Most Powerful Special Interest in Washington: The Acronym

We are interrupting FiveThirtyEight’s regular data-driven analysis for an important public service announcement:

A linguistic plague is creeping through the nation’s capital. From the House to the Senate, a demon lurks, luring the country’s leaders to twist and mangle words into grotesque amalgamations.

In Washington, there is nowhere to hide from … the acronym. And the English language may not survive the scourge.

The specific strain of the acronym virus infecting most of Washington is called “the bacronym.” A bacronym is a premeditated acronym, where a phrase is chosen so that the initial letters of each word form a desired word. The bacronym may hold little appeal for most, but in Washington bacronym-fever is rampant.

“Leadership” PACs – committees established by members of Congress to support other candidates — have been hit particularly hard. There are 487 such PACs in the Federal Election Commission’s database for the 2012 election cycle. Twenty percent of these PACs are titled with an acronym.

There’s Representative Michele Bachmann’s Many Individual Conservatives Helping Elect Leaders Everywhere PAC (MICHELE PAC).

There’s Senator Rand Paul’s mind-boggling Reinventing a New Direction PAC (RAND PAC). Mr. Paul, if a direction has already been invented, how can it be new?

The Because All Responsible Taxpayers Like Every Truth Told PAC (BARTLETT PAC) naturally belongs to Representative Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland’s Sixth District.

The House majority leader, Eric Cantor, voiced his commitment to fellow Republicans by establishing the ERIC PAC (Every Republican Is Crucial). But perhaps some Republicans are more crucial than others, because the ERIC PAC gave $25,000 to the Campaign for Primary Accountability, which is dedicated to challenging incumbent members of Congress, including Republicans.

All of the above are Republican PACs. Indeed, Washington’s acronym infection-rate is highest amongst Republicans — 67 of the 97 acronym-named PACs are affiliated with the G.O.P. But Democrats are not immune.

Representative Diana Degette, from Colorado’s First District, christened her political action committee the Individuals Dedicated to Ethics and Science PAC (IDEAS PAC).

And just in case democracy was feeling discouraged, Representative Ted Deutch, of Florida’s 19th District, founded the TED PAC, which stands for Together Encouraging Democracy.

The acronym pandemic has also reached the nation’s laws. It was not always so. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a law encoding civil rights for minorities and women. The law was called the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But such simplicity and elegance is long gone.

What will Americans of the 22nd century think when they look back and see that in 2011 alone, the following were just a few of the acronym-titled bills introduced in Congress.

  • Diaper Investment and Aid to Promote Economic Recovery Act (DIAPER)
  • Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM)
  • Fair Allocation of Internal Revenue Credit for Renewable Electricity Distribution by Indian Tribes Act (FAIRCREDIT)
  • Helping Agriculture Receive Verifiable Employees Securely and Temporarily Act (HARVEST)

And there were no fewer than three HOME Acts:

  • Hardship Outlays to protect Mortgagee Equity Act
  • Housing Opportunities Made Equal Act
  • Housing Opportunity and Mortgage Equity Act.

Patient zero may be Representative Darrell Issa, who represents California’s 49th District. Mr. Issa not only named his leadership PAC the Invest in a Strong and Secure America PAC (the ISSA PAC), he also sponsored the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (the DATA Act), the Promoting Automotive Repair, Trade, and Sales Act (the PARTS Act) and the Classified Information Accountability Act (the CIA Act),

The most recent affront to linguistic decency comes courtesy of Senators Charles Schumer of New York, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. Outraged by Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s decision to renounce his American citizenship in advance of Facebook’s IPO, thereby saving himself millions of dollars in taxes (although Mr. Saverin denied that was his motivation), the two senators introduced the Expatriation Prevention by Abolishing Tax-Related Incentives for Offshore Tenancy Act (the EX-PATRIOT Act).

The word “patriot” was also involved in perhaps the most famous example of acronym-obsessed legislators forcing unwilling words into line. In 2001, Congress passed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (the USA PATRIOT Act).

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.


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