OP-ED: What’s in a Name? The Battle Over Rhetoric


Megan Michaels, Contributor, Social Media Director

After the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act on August 7th, one might think that the United States government is living up to the legislation’s purpose of, well, reducing inflation. However, it does not take much digging to realize that “inflation reduction” is a misnomer. Not only do studies suggest that the Act will have a negligible effect on inflation, but from an economic perspective, the provisions the Inflation Reduction Act installs are also contradictory to their aims of achieving this goal. The new law means that the government will spend more than $350 billion on clean energy initiatives in hopes of decreasing energy consumption and spending in the long run. It enables Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies to lower prescription drug prices, but it simultaneously increases healthcare spending with subsidies for some prescription drugs. It is easy to see why the Inflation Reduction Act is net neutral in regards to inflation—its provisions counterbalance themselves. 

The scope of the policy initiatives in the Inflation Reduction Act—which includes climate change, healthcare and taxes—coupled with the law’s almost nonexistent effort to fight inflation, make the justification for calling it the “Inflation Reduction Act” aspirational at best. Yet, the incentives to do so are clear. With 35% of Americans citing economic problems as their top issue in a recent Gallup poll, and a majority of those respondents (17% overall) agreeing that inflation and living costs were their specific top economic concern, it’s no mystery why lawmakers would want to give the appearance that they are tackling the country’s top issue. The Inflation Reduction Act certainly makes for a favorable headline. 

The Inflation Reduction Act highlights just the most recent instance of the influential, but under-the-radar, process of naming legislation. A related phenomenon with similar rhetorical objectives – renaming legislation –  has also been demonstrated recently in the news. Perhaps the most notable instance is Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, which is better known by the name given by its opponents: the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill.

But the trend goes back further. Strategist Frank Luntz helped Republicans win the battle to reduce, and eventually repeal, the “Estate Tax” by reframing it as the “Death Tax” in the media. In 1995, the National Right to Life Commission riled up opposition to a new abortion procedure (dialation and extraction, or “D&X”) designed to reduce damage to the mother’s cervix in later-stage abortions by labeling it a “partial-birth abortion.” For reference, although this type of procedure is necessary because a fetus is more developed, Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (which were both in place at this time) only protected this procedure pre-viability. (And, yes, this fact is even conceded by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.) Still, President Bush signed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act into law in 2003. 

The power of language in public perception and ultimately the fate of a legislation is most clearly exemplified by polls conducted on the Affordable Care Act. A 2017 Morning Consult poll revealed that 1 in 3 Americans didn’t realize that the Affordable Care Act and “Obamacare” were the same thing. Further, disapproval ratings dropped from 46% for Obamacare to only 40% for the Affordable Care Act when the pollsters changed the name. Evidently, if a politician can win the name game, they can significantly increase the public’s support for a bill. 

This idea is backed by experts. Academics at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton point to the dual terms “green revolution” and “Frankenfood,” both used to refer to the same movement: the popularization of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in agriculture. “Green revolution” advocates emphasize the higher yields and drought-resistant qualities of GMO crops. Those on the side of “Frankenfood” fear the creation of pesticide-resistant crops and the lack of long term research on certain genetic modifications. Evidently, while rhetoric has no impact on the actual situation, the connotation of a term can change the narrative. It has the power to shift focus from the positive to negative effects, or vice versa. Just like language in advertising can determine whether or not a customer buys a product, rhetoric can persuade or dissuade a voter from buying into a particular ideology or law.

These debates bring to light the fact that the legacy of an administration or party can be  determined not only by the legislation they pass, but by the words used to describe that legislation. Further, the whole phenomenon is somewhat of a self-perpetuating cycle: politicians and parties stoke public sentiments by invoking certain language around an issue and then attempt to capitalize on public support for that same issue by passing laws that address that concern. It’s artificial—and polarizing.

Even so, the continuing battle between politicians over names makes sense, because it’s what the system incentivizes. Of course, each party wants to make the legislation that its members sponsor look good and reframe bills they oppose to appear detrimental. Moreover, because language cannot be separated from inherent connotations and associations, choosing language that is favorable to a certain cause is not inherently wrong. Rather, it is the discrepancy in understanding the content of a law that is the real issue. The country cannot engage in productive discourse if a single issue is being debated as two different issues. Strategic naming and renaming of bills is a trend that Americans should be hyper aware of – now more than ever – considering the ability for media channels to act as echo chambers of certain rhetoric. 

And so, this debate can be traced all the way back to the Inflation Reduction Act. Without taking the time to read about the provisions in the bill and the (lack of) impact economists expect it to actually have on inflation, it is easy to miss what is at the heart of the bill. No, the Inflation Reduction Act will not help the ongoing inflation crisis per se. But, it will encourage investment in green energy, enforce a minimum corporate tax rate, and lower the cost of prescription drugs covered by Medicare—all goals that many Americans envision for the near future of the country. This is all to say that there is no reason why the names of bills will not continue to obfuscate and overcomplicate the legislation process. Yet, one solution is relatively simple: with about fifteen minutes of investigation and a little objectivity, anyone can see through the political smokescreen. 

Image Credit: Untitled by Joshua Hoehne via Unsplash