Utah senator stalls 'plain language' bill

Lawmaker is concerned the measure would have the unintended consequence of forcing election commissions to oversimplify legal terminology.

A bill mandating the use of "plain language" on government forms, benefit applications, reports and other documents may languish this year amid a crowded Senate schedule and an unanticipated hold by Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah.

The bill would not apply to regulations. It defines "plain language" as language that "is clear, concise, well organized, and follows the best practices of language writing."

It would direct the Office of Management and Budget to issue guidelines for implementing the program within six months and then monitor compliance among agencies.

In April, the measure cleared the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on voice vote, while a similar measure passed the House 376-1.

It was expected to breeze through the Senate just before lawmakers left town for their summer recess when Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, placed a hold on behalf of Bennett.

According to Bennett aides, he was concerned about its impact on the Federal Election Commission and the Election Assistance Commission -- both of which fall under the oversight jurisdiction of the Senate Rules Committee, where he serves as ranking member.

"The FEC in particular is required to interpret campaign finance law and issue regulations that are often full of legal terms," spokeswoman Tara Hendershott said in an e-mail. "These precise terms may become lost in translation if [the FEC is] required to use whatever OMB determines is 'plain English.'" Hendershott added that while Bennett understands the need for clear communication, "he is concerned about the unintended consequences of this bill."

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, sponsor of the legislation, expressed disappointment in Bennett's move. The Hawaii senator said in a statement that his measure "is a good bipartisan bill that would improve Americans' access to their government," and "deserves an up or down vote on the floor." Aides to Akaka and Bennett said last week that they were discussing compromise language for the legislation but had not reached an agreement.

Senate Majority Harry Reid, D-Nev., is not planning to try to bring up the bill if Bennett will force him to file cloture, according to a spokesman. But Bennett has come under pressure from outside Congress. The National Small Business Association sent him a letter last week asking him release his hold, arguing that the bill would "not be a mandate" as such, and that it represented a "common sense approach to saving small business -- and the federal government -- time, effort and money."