Why the Government Can’t Write in Plain English
Over the past several days, Americans have been concluding a painful spring ritual, checking their math, signing their checks, and putting the finishing touches on their tax forms. Some of us will have spent weeks wincing at all the schedules and mysterious numbers, and doing our best to follow along as the instructions commanded us to “enter code type ‘7,’” “check box 32b,” and “see Form 6198,” like some kind of nightmarish choose-your-own-adventure.
Tax forms might be the most confusing documents some Americans have to face all year. But they’re bracingly simple compared to what lies behind them: the baroque federal regulations that describe how US tax code is supposed to work. Like so many of the innumerable “regs” enforced by our federal government — concerning everything from fuel efficiency standards to chicken farming to the number of hours an airline pilot is allowed to spend in the air — the IRS rules are a monument of bureaucratic language and jargon, virtually inaccessible to anyone without a law degree and vast stretches of time.
When we hear about federal regulation these days, it’s typically in the context of a partisan debate over whether there is too much of it or not enough. But to the side of this age-old shouting match is a group of people who believe that the most important question regarding the American regulatory system is not about quantity, but quality.
For them, regulations are the real voice of government, the way it most directly affects the lives of Americans. And so it matters how clearly these rules are written, they argue: When the IRS, the EPA, the FDA, and the CDC speak in incomprehensible gobbledygook, it amounts to a genuine threat to democracy. If it’s impossible for voters to understand what the government expects of them, how can they make informed decisions, let alone make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do?
These haters of bureaucratic jargon march under the banner of the plain language movement, and since the 1970s, they have been working to convince the government to embrace the virtue of clarity.
“Regulations govern the lives of people, and they govern the way we conduct business,” said Joseph Kimble, a professor at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School and one of the founding directors of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Plain Language. “And it seems to me that . . . everybody that’s affected by regulations has a right to understand what they’re being told to do or not to do.”
Right now, by all accounts, plain language advocates are enjoying a happy moment: Their cause has been taken up enthusiastically by President Obama, who signed a law in October 2010 requiring federal agencies to use plain language in forms, letters, instructions, and other documents. More recently, the Obama administration issued an executive order saying regulations should be written in plain language, and a memo went out asking federal agencies to start appending a short summary to any “lengthy or complex” new rule. For the past two years, the Center for Plain Language has been giving out awards to the federal agencies that are doing the most to change their ways, with the IRS taking last year’s prize for “Best Revised Document” in the public sector category and the Department of Health and Human Services snagging “Best Website” in 2010.