Birthday Wishes

At 70, the Federal Register really could use a makeover.

The Federal Register turned 70 this year. It even got a birthday cake at the Government Printing Office, which publishes the daily compendium of federal agencies' actions in print and online. Yes, for 70 years, the Federal Register has been the one-stop shop for anyone who's wanted to know about the next public meeting of the Arctic Research Commission, learn about the air-quality improvement plans approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, comment on the Food and Drug Administration's medical device regulations or double-check the Indian Health Service's adherence to the Privacy Act.

First, let's celebrate the occasion. The Federal Register is democracy in action, transparency in government, a connection between citizens and public servants that has not been severed for seven decades, unless you count weekends and holidays. It is an American institution, keeping taxpayers abreast of what federal agencies are doing with their money or plan to do to their communities. It enables citizens to comment on agencies' plans and to learn whether agencies listened. In a nation governed by the rule of law, the Federal Register is the rule of law made real on a daily basis.

Second, let's admit a few weaknesses that have become more obvious with age. As much of a resource as it is, the Web site is a pain to find. Even if you, as an ordinary American citizen, knew that the government's business is conducted in the Federal Register, you couldn't even go to federalregister.gov to look up your favorite proposed rule. You would have to go to the nonintuitive www.gpoaccess.gov/fr. And even if you got that far, you would have to know that the truck safety rule you're interested in is issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. And even after you figured that out and found the proposed rule, you would have to read this: "Under 49 U.S.C. 31315 and 31136(e), FMCSA may renew an exemption from the vision requirements in 49 CFR 391.41(b)(10), which applies to drivers of CMVs in interstate commerce."

Simply put, the Federal Register is hard to use and hard to read. And although this shouldn't matter, something else must be said. It's ugly. Even online. It's the ugly print Federal Register converted into an ugly digital Federal Register.

Third, let's challenge the publishers of the Federal Register and the people who write for it to make the publication better before its 80th birthday. In addition to arranging it by agency, the Government Printing Office should organize it in a few additional ways. The Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance guides users to its funding possibilities through several options. Readers can look through a list of functional areas such as "business and commerce" and "transportation," they can look for assistance by type (grants, loans, employment) and even search by person or organization eligible to apply. The Federal Regis-ter can use the catalog's functional areas and also organize postings by type-meeting announcement, proposed rule, final rule and more. The Register could use some editorial judgment and highlight the most important entries of the day, based on which issues have been most popular.

Agency officials could start writing their entries as if they thought normal people were actually going to read them. Here's a suggestion for the FMCSA: "Interstate truck drivers who have vision problems can keep driving only if they check with us first."

So let's again wish the Federal Register a happy birthday, and hope for an even happier one a year from now.

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