Bill takes federal plain language requirements a step further

Thursday - 1/19/2012, 5:17am EST

Jared Serbu, reporter, Federal News Radio

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Under the Plain Language Act, federal agencies have already had to sharpen their public communications skills. New proposed legislation would take the spirit of that open government effort a step further.

Since last October, agencies have been required to take a new approach to the way they write publications and other materials that are intended for public consumption and write them in plain language. The congressman who originally sponsored the Plain Language Act now wants to expand the requirements into what he argues are the most confusing and complex federal documents of all: federal regulations.

Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa)(AP photo)

"You shouldn't have to have an accountant and a lawyer to explain to you every regulation that impacts your business," said Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa). "These federal regulations are some of the most complex, difficult to understand documents there are, period. Without exception, federal regulations are too long, too complex and, often, too poorly-written."

Braley said his latest plain language push is an effort, first and foremost, to stick up for small businesses. Unlike their bigger corporate peers, he said, they lack full-time teams of lawyers and compliance experts, and figuring out what new regulations mean and how to comply with them costs them real money.

Braley's bill would not create an entirely new plain language regime just for regulations. It leans instead on the work that agencies and the Office of Management and Budget have already done to implement the Plain Language Act and extends it to the regulatory process.

The bill would give agencies one year to start using those plain language processes for new regulations.

The Obama administration also views incomprehensible rules as a problem.

"Rules are often long and complex. Sometimes they're over a thousand pages," Cass Sunstein, administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, said in a Jan. 10 interview with Federal News Radio. "To figure out exactly what they're doing and what the public is supposed to respond to is often a lot of work. It compromises open government, and it also makes compliance more costly and difficult."

Cass Sunstein, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (Whitehouse.gov photo)

To attack the problem, Sunstein drafted a memo ordering agencies to write a plain English executive summary of every complex proposed or final rule they create and post it at the top of the actual regulation.

But Braley said that's not good enough. He said the full text of the rule itself needs to be understandable by ordinary human beings.

And, he said, some agencies are already proving that feds can write their work products in plain language. He called out the IRS as one example of an agency that's taking the mandate seriously.

"They've designated 10 plain language coordinators, and they've required 95,000 employees who communicate with the public to take their introduction to plain writing training course," Braley said. "And they have a plain writing act editorial board that meets frequently to review how they're complying with the bill. So far, they have over 2,400 documents that are covered by the Plain Writing Act, and they estimate that 400 of those documents will be rewritten within the next 12 months."

The new bill only would apply to new regulations; plain language offenders that already are on the books would be allowed to stay there for now. Braley said he didn't want to require agencies to reexamine the rules they've already issued.

"We didn't do that because we think that as we move forward, most of the rules are going to be reconsidered at some point in time," he said. "But the most important thing is to begin the process. Then, my hope is, the response will be so positive to the reduced burden to small businesses and individuals that it will give motivation to start to consider going back and looking at some of those outdated regulations that could be improved by a plain language approach."

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