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.