Plain Language Panacea?


Are bills impossible to read?

Ezra Klein today suggests as much, praising the Senate Finance Committee’s posting of the healthcare bill in plain language:

People like to demand that congressmen should read the full text of bills. But congressmen don’t do that because it’s an absurd request: The bills are incomprehensible. It wouldn’t enhance their understanding at all. Conceptual language, however, does, and if it became standard practice for bills to begin in that format, I imagine many more members would read them. To get a sense of the difference, scan H.R. 3200, the House bill, and then click over to Baucus’s Mark.

I find this reasoning to be dangerous.  Bills are not entirely incomprehensible, though they can be challenging.  Reading them definitely can “enhance [one’s] understanding”.  To deny the value of parsing legislative language is to preemptively excuse lawmakers who fail to write effective laws.   Loopholes and interpretive confusion don’t come from plain language interpretations of bills.  They come from the literal meaning of laws, which are complex for a reason.

Additionally, it’s hard to argue with a simplification.  Anyone who wants to truly wrestle with the details of the Finance committee bill (as staffers certainly should be) has to parry rejoinders such as “we haven’t seen the legislative language yet.”  A bill without details doesn’t support conversation about details; it supports conversations about assumptions.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the Finance committee shouldn’t use plain language versions of bills while they negotiate and hammer out initial details.  Complex legislative language can be used as a barrier to real analysis just as much as plain text can.

It’s dangerous, however, to suggest that the precise legal phrasing that is the stuff of bills is somehow below Members of Congress.  It isn’t.  It’s the machine language, the actual mechanics, of how our laws work.

Accessible explanations are a necessary component of an accessible legislature.  They should replace real legislative language as much as the the FDA should stop requiring nutrition labeling on our food, and revert back to misleading “Light!” “Natural!” labels.

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  • Johnqeniac

    Hello John Wonderlich,

    You assert that it is perfectly appropriate and rational that bills be couched in incomprehensible legalese. I think your analogies highlight the opposite. You call legalese the ‘machine language’ of the legislative process. But how many programmers write code in ‘machine language’? Virtually none, because it is also incomprehensible. They write in high level human-readable languages which are then converted to machine language by compilers. Nothing would get done otherwise. There is no reason why legislation cannot be written in human readable language which is just as precise as legalese. And your example of FDA nutrition labeling further supports this point – FDA labeling is not incomprehensible at all. It is completely understandable – unlike the madness of legalese. Legalese is an incredible impediment to transparency, and it is not mandated by the Constitution. It was imposed by a parasitic guild (lawyers) early on, and it is now so deeply embedded in the system that people think it is necessary. But it isn’t. It’s a chronic disease. It is ridiculous to claim that it is impossible to write precise legislation in language that average educated people of average intelligence can actually follow and understand. I don’t see how you can believe in the possibility of transparent government if you don’t believe that.

  • Amen. Never has it been more true that the devil is in the details than with legislation and those details are what end up the law of the land.

  • Good analogy to the FDA. Do we need to know anything more about health care reform than that it “tastes great” and is “less filling”?

  • johnny

    Interesting stuff. Let me ask this, Do you know what triggers a plain language version of a bill? Is it the number of pages? Or the relative importance of a bill?
    How did the plain language thing come to be anyways?


    • The Senate Finance Committee always writes bills in “conceptual” language. It’s just tradition. After they mark it up it is translated into legislative language.