Senate committee passes 'plain English' bill

Stolen from:

Terry Kivlan CongressDaily April 14, 2008

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday passed legislation that would require federal agencies to purge their rules, forms, letters and other documents of confusing bureaucratic language and replace it with simple English.

bill, which cleared on a voice vote without discussion, would require federal agencies to launch programs within six months for translating their documents into "plain language," and to file periodic reports to Congress on the progress of the efforts.

Some agencies already have programs to improve the quality of their documents. For example, the Securities and Exchange Commission published an instruction guide, entitled "Plain English Handbook," for its regulations and document writers. And a private group, Plain Language Action, has put out a similar guide book, "The Federal Plain Language Guidelines."

The project to straighten out the convoluted sentences and paragraphs of government prose is expected to take many years because it involves tens of thousands of documents. Moreover, the government's culture of obfuscation will not be easy to reform, supporters of the plain language bill acknowledge.

A version of the bill cleared the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee earlier this year and is awaiting approval by the full chamber. Its sponsor, Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, introduced the measure after coming to the conclusion that the incomprehensibility of many government benefit forms was frustrating their purpose.

The Senate version of the bill was introduced by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, who was present at the markup but did not speak on the measure.

In recent statements, Akaka has said his bill would "save the American people a great deal of time, energy and money spent wading through overly complicated" forms for federal taxes, veterans benefits, Medicare and Social Security, and other programs.

Akaka said the switch to plain language would make the government more efficient and transparent, and easier to hold accountable.

In one difference with the Senate bill, the House bill contains an added provision requiring federal agencies to use English in their documents "to the maximum extent possible." In the Oversight and Government Reform Committee markup of the legislation, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., argued that the provision would not "unduly" prohibit the use of other languages.

Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., agreed to accept Foxx's provision but warned that the issue would be revisited if it holds up full House passage of the overall bill.

Commentary: If the localities and states follow up with similar efforts one of the biggest challenges will be in training police to write in normal human language, and not made up words. In my former career I had cause to see a lot of documents written by public safety staff --- they verbified more words than all the blogs put together.

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