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110th Congress 2d Session        SENATE                 Report


                                                       Calendar No. 869



                              R E P O R T

                                 of the

                          GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS
                          UNITED STATES SENATE

                              to accompany

                                S. 2291


    July 10 (legislative day, July 9), 2008.--Ordered to be printed

               JOSEPH I. LIEBERMAN, Connecticut, Chairman
CARL LEVIN, Michigan                 SUSAN M. COLLINS, Maine
DANIEL K. AKAKA, Hawaii              TED STEVENS, Alaska
THOMAS R. CARPER, Delaware           GEORGE V. VOINOVICH, Ohio
MARK L. PRYOR, Arkansas              NORM COLEMAN, Minnesota
MARY L. LANDRIEU, Louisiana          TOM COBURN, Oklahoma
BARACK OBAMA, Illinois               PETE V. DOMENICI, New Mexico
CLAIRE McCASKILL, Missouri           JOHN WARNER, Virginia
JON TESTER, Montana                  JOHN E. SUNUNU, New Hampshire

                  Michael L. Alexander, Staff Director
                     Kevin J. Landy, Chief Counsel
              Adam R. Sedgewick, Professional Staff Member
Lisa M. Powell, Chief Investigative Counsel, Subcommittee on Oversight 
 of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of 
     Brandon L. Milhorn, Minority Staff Director and Chief Counsel
                    John K. Grant, Minority Counsel
Thomas A. Bishop, Minority Legislative Aide, Subcommittee on Oversight 
 of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of 
                  Trina Driessnack Tyrer, Chief Clerk
                                                       Calendar No. 869
110th Congress                                                   Report
 2d Session                                                     110-412



    July 10 (legislative day, July 9), 2008.--Ordered to be printed


Mr. Lieberman, from the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental 
                    Affairs, submitted the following

                              R E P O R T

                         [To accompany S. 2291]

    The Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental 
Affairs, to which was referred the bill (S. 2291) to enhance 
citizen access to Government information and services by 
establishing plain language as the standard style of Government 
documents issued to the public, and for other purposes, having 
considered the same, reports favorably thereon without 
amendment and recommends that the bill do pass.


  I. Purpose & Summary................................................1
 II. Background.......................................................2
III. Legislative History..............................................5
 IV. Section-by-Section Analysis......................................6
  V. Estimated Cost of Legislation....................................6
 VI. Evaluation of Regulatory Impact..................................7
VII. Changes in Existing Law..........................................8

                          I. PURPOSE & SUMMARY

    The purpose of S. 2291, the Plain Language in Government 
Communications Act (``Plain Language Act''), is to improve the 
effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies by 
promoting clear Government communication that the public can 
understand and use.

                             II. BACKGROUND

The problem

    Federal agencies issue documents that explain what the 
agencies do, the requirements of federal laws and programs, how 
members of the public can obtain various benefits, and for 
manyother purposes. Too often, these documents are difficult for the 
public to understand and use because they are poorly organized and 
unnecessarily complex. Such writing costs the public both time and 
money; time spent trying to understand the documents and money that 
agencies spend answering questions from frustrated members of the 
public. As Christopher Cox, Chairman of the Securities and Exchange 
Commission, testified at a House hearing on the benefits of plain 
language, ``The time and money that is wasted on translating legalese 
into plain English is dead weight economic loss. It benefits no one, 
and harms millions of consumers who pay for it.'' \1\
    \1\ See Statement of Christopher Cox, Chairman, U.S. Securities and 
Exchange Commission before House Committee on Small Business, 
Subcommittee on Contracting and Technology, February 26, 2008 
(hereafter ``Cox Testimony''), at p. 1.
    Clear communication also is important for transparent and 
accountable government. As Chairman Cox testified, when rules 
are hard to understand, people are less likely to comply 
because they do not understand their obligations, and people 
who try to comply become frustrated and angry. When poorly 
written rules are enforced, people view it as arbitrary and 
unfair, and their confidence in government is eroded.\2\ 
According to Chairman Cox, ``Clarity in spelling out a 
citizen's obligations is one of the most fundamental 
requirements of the rule of law.'' \3\
    \2\ See ibid. at p. 2.
    \3\ See ibid.

The benefits of writing documents in plain language

    Studies demonstrate the value of plain language. As an 
example, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs rewrote 
selected form letters in plain language and tracked the 
effects. One unit of a field office sent out a form letter 
rewritten to be more clear and readable, while another unit 
continued sending out the original form letter. More people 
responded to the plain language letter than the original letter 
(45 percent versus 29 percent). Additionally, all of the 
responses to the plain language letter were complete, while 18 
percent of the responses to the original letter were 
incomplete.\4\ Another Veterans Affairs office rewrote a form 
letter into plain language. They tracked telephone calls to the 
office seeking help with the letter before and after it was 
rewritten. These calls dropped more than 80 percent after the 
plain language version was issued, from more than 1,100 in a 
year to less than 200.\5\
    \4\ See Reva Daniel, ``Revising Letters to Veterans,'' Technical 
Communication (1st Q. 1995), pp. 69-75, 72-73, available online at Veterans.pdf.
    \5\ See ibid. at pp. 73-74.
    State programs to promote clear communication with members 
of the public are yielding impressive results as well. For 
example, the State of Arizona recently rewrote 100 form 
letters, working to organize, simplify, and shorten them. After 
rewriting its letters, the State Unclaimed Property Section 
received 11,000 fewer telephone calls in 2007 than 2006, 
allowing the staff to process 30,000 more claims than the 
previous year.\6\ Likewise, the Washington State ``plain talk'' 
initiative is improving government efficiency. The Washington 
Department of Revenue rewrote information about the State ``use 
tax,'' which had been widely misunderstood and ignored. Now, 
three times as many businesses are paying the tax, bringing in 
an additional $800,000 revenue over two years.\7\
    \6\ See Amanda Crawford, ``Revenue Department Sees Effects of Plain 
Talk,' '' The Arizona Republic, January 6, 2008, available online at
    \7\ See ``Washington State Sees Results from `Plain Talk' 
Initiative,'' USA Today, December 10, 2006, available online at http://

The Plain Language Act

    The Plain Language Act builds upon past and current plain 
language efforts in the federal government. On June 1, 1998, 
President Clinton issued a memorandum directing federal 
agencies to use plain language. That memorandum required plain 
language to be used in ``all new documents, other than 
regulations, that explain how to obtain a benefit or service or 
how to comply with a requirement you administer or enforce'' by 
October 1, 1998. Later deadlines were provided for issuing 
regulations in plain language and for reissuing documents 
written prior to October 1, 1998.\8\
    \8\ See Memorandum from President William J. Clinton to Heads of 
Executive Departments and Agencies regarding Plain Language in 
Government Writing, June 1, 1998, available at http://
    Vice President Gore oversaw implementation of the plain 
language requirements and coordinated the federal government's 
Plain Language Action Network (PLAN).\9\ The Clinton memorandum 
remains in effect, and many agencies maintain plain language 
programs. PLAN (now the Plain Language Action and Information 
Network or PLAIN) continues promoting plain language in federal 
government communications and providing plain language writing 
workshops.\10\ Although many agencies have made progress, the 
plain language initiative has been implemented unevenly.
    \9\ See Brian Friel, ``Gore orders agencies to write in plain 
English,'' Government Executive, June 2, 1998; John Broderick, 
``Reinventing Government: The Role of Plain Language,'' available 
online at, at 1-2.
    \10\ See Joanne Locke, ``A History of Plain Language in the United 
States Government,'' 2004, available at
history/locke.cfm; Statement of Annetta Cheek, Chair of the Center for 
Plain Language before House Committee on Small Business, Subcommittee 
on Contracting and Technology, February 26, 2008 (hereafter ``Cheek 
testimony''), at p. 5; Cox Testimony, at p. 2-4 (discussing plain 
language initiatives at the Securities and Exchange Commission).
    Despite the progress that has been made, a wide variety of 
organizations have called on Congress to pass legislation to 
reinforce the existing plain language programs because their 
members continue to lose time and money struggling to 
understand federal government documents.\11\ The following 
organizations have sent or joined letters in support of the 
Plain Language Act: the AARP, Disabled American Veterans, 
National Small Business Association, Small Business Legislative 
Council, Women Impacting Public Policy, American Association of 
Law Libraries, American Library Association, Special Libraries 
Association, American Nurses Association, Association for 
Business Communication, Association of Professional 
Communication Consultants, Strategic Communication Inc., and 
Usability Professionals' Association.\12\
    \11\ See Statement of Todd McCracken, President of the National 
Small Business Association before House Committee on Small Business, 
Subcommittee on Contracting and Technology, February 26, 2008, at p. 2 
(``The federal government's proclivity towards arcane, ambiguous, or 
simply incomprehensible language translates into billions of lost hours 
and dollars.''); Statement of Robert Romasco, Member of the Board of 
Directors of the AARP before House Committee on Small Business, 
Subcommittee on Contracting and Technology, February 26, 2008 
(hereafter Romasco Testimony) (``AARP hears every day from our members 
who cannot understand the dense writing and legalese in correspondence 
they receive from the federal government. In most cases, this lack of 
comprehension is not the fault of the reader but rather the 
impenetrable writing style of the government agency.'').
    \12\ All letters available upon request to the Senate Subcommittee 
on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the 
District of Columbia.
    Codifying plain language requirements would guarantee over 
time consistent use of plain language in all federal 
agencies.\13\ The Plain Language Act includes provisions 
designed to ensure full implementation across the federal 
government. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) would 
develop and issue guidelines for plain language writing, so 
that all agencies will have a single set of standards to 
    \13\ See, e.g., Romasco Testimony (``In order to ensure uniform 
progress in this area, AARP believes a statutory requirement for 
government agencies to write in plain language, and a requirement that 
the agencies report to Congress on the progress they are making in 
meeting this goal, is needed to help ensure compliance.'').
    OMB raised concerns about the burden that this legislation 
will place on that agency. The Committee intends that OMB would 
play a coordinating and facilitating role. However, agencies 
would be primarily responsible for implementing the plain 
language requirements and OMB would not be responsible for 
reviewing agency communications for compliance or directly 
overseeing the plain language requirements. To further address 
OMB's concerns, Senator Akaka intends to offer a substitute 
amendment to S. 2281, prior to its passage by the Senate. 
Section 4(b) of the substitute amendment would permit the 
Director of OMB to designate a lead agency and to use 
interagency working groups to assist OMB in carrying out its 
responsibilities under the Act.
    After agencies submit initial reports directly to Congress, 
OMB would review agencies' reports on compliance with the 
legislation and report to Congress on agencies' progress. This 
reporting system would enhance OMB's coordination role while 
facilitating congressional oversight. OMB may have agencies 
combine their reports on compliance with this Act with the 
annual compliance reports required under the E-Government Act.
    The Plain Language Act would place no restrictions or 
requirements on OMB's development of the plain language 
guidance. OMB may adapt the plain language guidelines developed 
by PLAIN or by the Securities and Exchange Commission if 
appropriate, and it may rely on the expertise of PLAIN, any 
agency, or other organization, such as the Center for Plain 
Language, in developing the guidelines.
    The Plain Language Act defines ``plain language'' with 
reference to the ``intended audience.'' As Annetta Cheek, Chair 
of the Center for Plain Language, testified at the House 
hearing, ``[t]here are no hard rules in plain language except 
to be clear to your intended reader.'' \14\ Writing in plain 
language does not require deleting complex information; rather 
it means organizing and presenting information in a way that 
improves readability. Specialized vocabulary, such as legal or 
scientific terms, may be appropriate when addressing an 
audience that understands the terms. However, when addressing a 
general audience, specialized terms should be explained or 
avoided if not necessary to accurately present the information 
    \14\ See Cheek Testimony, at p. 4.
    The Plain Language Act's definition of ``covered document'' 
is based upon the definition of new documents covered by the 
Clinton memorandum. The definition is broad and is intended to 
encompass most written communications with the public except 
regulations. The list of types of documents specifically 
included in the definition--letters, publications, forms, 
notices, and instructions--is intended to illustrate rather 
than to limit the types of documents covered. Thedefinition 
covers written communications provided to members of the public 
electronically, for example written website content or email 
communication, as well as printed documents.
    Unlike the Clinton memorandum, however, the Plain Language 
Act would not require rewriting existing documents in plain 
language or writing regulations in plain language. The 
legislation would exclude these requirements in order to reduce 
the burden on agencies and OMB. Likewise, the Committee 
recognizes that many regulations are technical and complicated, 
so implementing plain language writing for rulemaking may 
require additional planning and training beyond what is 
necessary for other documents. Accordingly, the Plain Language 
Act would allow agencies to focus their efforts first on other 
types of writing. However, the Plain Language Act is not 
intended to discourage any executive branch plain language 
writing requirements or programs that would not be required by 
the Act.
    To further reduce the burden of the legislation, agencies 
would be given one year from the date of enactment to comply 
with plain language requirements, which is a significantly 
longer time period than the Clinton memorandum provided.
    OMB raised concerns that this legislation would lead to 
litigation. The Committee does not intend to create any 
individually enforceable right. Rather, it will be the 
responsibility of agencies, OMB, and Congress to ensure that 
the plain language requirements are implemented. To address 
OMB's concern, the substitute amendment that Senator Akaka 
intends to offer would add a new Section 6, specifying that 
there shall be no judicial review of compliance with the Act, 
and that the Act creates no right or benefit enforceable in any 
administrative or judicial action.

                        III. LEGISLATIVE HISTORY

    On November 1, 2007, Senator Akaka introduced the Plain 
Language Act (S. 2291), which was referred to the Committee on 
Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Senators McCaskill, 
Carper, and Levin are original cosponsors of the legislation. 
Senators Obama, Clinton, Tester, Voinovich, Collins, and 
Cochran have joined as cosponsors of the Plain Language Act as 
    On April 10, 2008, the Committee considered S. 2291 and 
ordered the bill reported favorably by voice vote without 
amendment. Members present for the vote were Lieberman, Levin, 
Akaka, Carper, Landrieu, McCaskill, Tester, Collins, Voinovich, 
and Sununu.
    Representative Braley introduced a companion bill (H.R. 
3548) in the House of Representatives on September 17, 2007, 
which was referred to the House Committee on Oversight and 
Government Reform. On February 26, 2008, the House Small 
Business Committee, Subcommittee on Contracting and Technology, 
held a hearing on the benefits of plain language.
    The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform 
ordered the legislation to be reported as amended on March 13, 
2008. The House of Representatives passed H.R. 3548 on April 
14, 2008, and it currently is pending in the Senate.


    Section 1 titles the bill.
    Section 2 identifies the purpose of the Act as improving 
Federal agencies' effectiveness and accountability to the 
public by promoting clear government communication that the 
public can understand and use.
    Section 3 defines the terms ``agency,'' ``covered 
document,'' and ``plain language.''
    Section 4(a) requires that not later than one year after 
the date of enactment agencies use plain language in any 
covered document that the agency issues or substantially 
    Section 4(b) directs OMB to develop guidance on 
implementing the requirements of Section 4(a) and issue it as a 
circular. In the interim before the guidance is issued, 
agencies would be directed to follow PLAIN's plain language 
guidelines, the Plain English Handbook published by the 
Securities and Exchange Commission, or any guidance issued by 
the agency head that is consistent with the PLAIN guidelines.
    Section 5(a) requires the head of each agency to submit an 
initial report to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and 
Governmental Affairs and the House Committee on Oversight and 
Government Reform within six months of enactment. The initial 
report would designate a senior official responsible for 
implementing the requirements of the Act and describe the 
agency's plan to train employees in plain language writing, 
meet the deadline for compliance with the Act, and ensure 
ongoing compliance.
    Section 5(b) requires the agency to submit reports to OMB 
on compliance with this legislation. OMB would review those 
reports and submit a report on the agencies' compliance to the 
Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs 
and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, 
annually for the first two years after the date of enactment 
and once every three years thereafter. OMB would notify each 
agency of the date by which the agency's report is required to 
enable it to meet its reporting deadline.


                                                    April 15, 2008.
Hon. Joseph I. Lieberman,
Chairman, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, U.S. 
        Senate, Washington, DC.
    Dear Mr. Chairman: The Congressional Budget Office has 
prepared the enclosed cost estimate for S. 2291, the Plain 
Language in Government Communications Act of 2007.
    If you wish further details on this estimate, we will be 
pleased to provide them. The CBO staff contact is Matthew 
                                                   Peter R. Orszag.

S. 2291--Plain Language in Government Communications Act of 2007

    S. 2291 would amend federal law to require all federal 
agencies within one year to use plain language (clear and 
readily identifiable to the intended reader) in all documents, 
including letters, publications, and forms. The legislation 
also would require the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to 
provide governmentwide guidance on this matter. Finally, S. 
2291 would require each agency to designate a coordinator for 
its efforts to use plain language, review its compliance with 
the legislation, train employees to use plain language, and 
prepare reports to the Congress on compliance with the 
    CBO estimates that implementing S. 2291 would cost up to $2 
million a year for agencies to implement the additional 
employee training and reporting requirements, subject to the 
availability of appropriated funds. The bill could also affect 
direct spending by agencies not funded through annual 
appropriations, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the 
Bonneville Power Administration. CBO estimates, however, that 
any increase in spending by those agencies would not be 
    Most provisions of the bill would codify and expand current 
practices of the federal government. Executive Order 12866 and 
the Presidential Memorandum on Plain Language (June 1, 1998) 
currently require government agencies to write in language that 
is comprehensible to readers. Based on information from OMB, 
CBO estimates that implementing this bill would not 
significantly increase the cost of preparing various paper or 
electronic documents used throughout the government.
    S. 2291 contains no intergovernmental or private-sector 
mandates as defined in the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act and 
would not affect the budgets of state, local, or tribal 
    On April 8, 2008, CBO provided a cost estimate for H.R. 
3548, the Plain Language in Government Communications Act of 
2007, as ordered reported by the House Committee on Oversight 
and Government Reform on March 13, 2008. Both pieces of 
legislation are similar and the estimated costs are the same.
    The CBO staff contact for this estimate is Matthew 
Pickford. This estimate was approved by Theresa Gullo, Deputy 
Assistant Director for Budget Analysis.


    Pursuant to the requirements of paragraph 11(b) of rule 
XXVI of the Standing Rules of the Senate, the Committee has 
considered the regulatory impact that would be incurred in 
carrying out this legislation. CBO states that there are no 
intergovernmental or private-sector mandates as defined in the 
Unfunded Mandates Reform Act and no costs on State, local, or 
tribal governments. The legislation contains no other 
regulatory impact.

                      VII. CHANGES IN EXISTING LAW

    Because this legislation would not repeal or amend any 
provision of current law, it would make no changes in existing 
law within the meaning of clauses (a) and (b) of paragraph 12 
of rule XXVI of the Standing Rules of the Senate.