Lawmakers' message loud and clear on jargon

The Senate on Monday passed legislation requiring the federal government to use clear language in public documents and to eliminate confusing jargon. Sens. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and George Voinovich, R-Ohio, sponsored the 2010 Plain Writing Act.

The Plain Writing Act would give federal agencies one year to implement the use of clear language in all public documents. The legislation requires agencies, no later than nine months after the law would take effect, to appoint one or more senior officials to oversee implementation. Agencies also would be responsible for establishing a compliance process, informing the public of their compliance, and receiving and responding to public input on the government's efforts. The Office of Management and Budget is required to publish guidance for agencies on incorporating the mandate no later than six months after the law takes effect.

"Americans lose time and money because government instructions, forms and other documents are too complicated," Akaka, chairman of the government management oversight subcommittee, said in a statement. "People need to be able to understand what documents say in order to hold the federal government accountable." He described the bill as "common-sense reform."

According to Voinovich, ranking member of the subcommittee, "Americans spend 7.6 billion hours a year grappling with incomprehensible tax forms and instructions. In fact, 82 percent of Americans get so confused they pay for help filing their taxes -- stripping dollars from much-needed tax refunds."

A similar bill, also sponsored by Akaka, languished in 2008 after Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, acting on behalf of Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, stalled it. Bennett feared the bill would complicate the work of the Federal Election Commission and the Election Assistance Commission.

The battle against government jargon is not new. Since the mid-1990s, members of the Plain Language Action and Information Network, a group of federal employees from various agencies, have discussed best practices to combat the use of acronyms and incomprehensible language across government. The Plain Writing Act urges agencies to follow the guidance of PLAIN before OMB issues its best practices for implementation.

The House passed its version of the bill in March. It now returns to the House to reconcile the two versions.

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