The Plain Writing Act

On October 13, 2010, the President signed into law the Plain Writing Act of 2010 (Public Law No: 111-274) which requires that federal agencies use “plain writing” in every “covered document” issued to the public. Covered documents include any document that would be relevant to getting federal benefits of any type, finding out about federal benefits, or learning how to comply with federal requirements. Included are letters, publications, forms, notices, or instructions but, unfortunately, not regulations. That regulations are excluded is unfortunate given that the language of most regulations is almost unreadable. However, instructions for complying with federal regulations are among those “covered documents,” so it possible that the net effect will be some reduction in that paperwork burden. The complexity of regulations and the way they are written combine to make it difficult for individuals and business to understand. Whether or the new law makes compliance easier remains to be seen. Section 4 of the Act states the responsibility of federal agencies:

Not later than 9 months after the date of enactment of this Act, the head of each executive agency to: (A) designate one or more senior officials within the agency to oversee the agency’s implementation of this Act; (B) communicate this Act’s requirements to the agency’s employees; (C) train agency employees in plain writing; (D) establish a process for overseeing the agency’s ongoing compliance with this Act’s requirements; (E) create and maintain a plain writing section of the agency’s website that is accessible from its homepage; and (F) designate one or more agency points-of-contact to receive and respond to public input on (i)the implementation of this Act; and (ii) the agency reports required under section 5.”

According to H. Rept. 111-432, the history of the effort to implement plain language dates back to 1979 when President Carter issued Executive Order 12174 encouraging agencies to draft forms ‘‘to elicit information in a simple, straightforward fashion.’’ The title of the original bill, H.R. 946, was the Plain Language Act of 2009 when Rep. Bruce L. Braley of Iowa introduced it in February 2010. The Committee on Oversight and Government, chaired by Brooklyn Rep. Edolphus “Ed” Towns, reported the bill to the House in March 2010 and changed its name to the Plain Writing Act.

The new law is not retroactive so that regulations in effect at the time of its enactment, along with instructions for implementing them, need not be rewritten unless they are being “substantially revised”. Furthermore, the new law becomes effective one year after the date of its enactment in order to give federal agencies time to comply. Congressman Braley issued a press release with three before-and-after examples of plain language in federal documents.