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Congress Erases ‘Lunatic,’ Keeps ’Idiot’ in Federal Law

Dec. 5 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. House voted to remove the term “lunatic” from sections of federal law, while the word “idiot” would remain.

The bill, which passed 398-1, would amend a section of the U.S. Code that defines the meanings of certain words used in acts of Congress. Making the change would eliminate “references that contribute to the stigmatization of mental health conditions,” according to an April 25 statement by the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota.

“The term ‘lunatic’ holds a place in antiquity and should no longer have a prominent place in our U.S. code,” Representative Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, said today on the floor.

The targeted language from 1947 currently reads: “The words ‘insane’ and ‘insane person’ and ‘lunatic’ shall include every idiot, lunatic, insane person, and person non compos mentis.”

The legislation, titled the 21st Century Language Act of 2012, also would remove the word “lunatic” from 1962 banking-law provisions dealing with trust powers and the consolidation and mergers of national banks.

Conrad said he was contacted by a constituent who supported efforts to remove the term from law. The measure is backed by the American Psychiatric Association, the American Counseling Association, the National Association of School Psychologists and other professional and advocacy groups.

‘Lunar Cycles’

“The term ‘lunatic’ derives from the Latin word for moon,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, said today on the House floor. “Before the modern era, it was used to describe a person who suffers from mental disease because of the belief that lunar cycles have an impact on brain function. But as science and medicine have progressed, society has come to understand mental illness with more clarity.”

The only “no” vote was cast by Texas Republican Louie Gohmert, who also serves on the Judiciary Committee.

“Not only should we not eliminate the word ‘lunatic’ from federal law when the most pressing issue of the day is saving our country from bankruptcy, we should use the word to describe the people who want to continue with business as usual in Washington,” Gohmert said in an e-mailed statement.

The vote clears the measure for the president’s signature. The Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent on May 23. The bill is S. 2367.

To contact the reporter on this story: Timothy R. Homan in Washington at thoman1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo5@bloomberg.net

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