Two bills with the short title of "Plain Language in Government Communications Act of 2007" were introduced during the 110th Congress (2007-2008). The long title of each was the same: a bill "To enhance citizen access to Government information and services by establishing plain language as the standard style for Government documents issued to the public, and for other purposes."
The first bill, H.R. 3548, was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on September 17, 2007. The companion bill, S. 2291, was introduced in the U.S. Senate a little over a month later.
The "Plain Language in Government Communications Act of 2007," House Bill 3548 (HR 3548) was introduced by Rep. Bruce L. Braley (IA-1) into the U.S. House of Representatives during the 110th Congress on September 17, 2007. (See the introduced version
here, as "Version #1" in the Plain Writing Association's Bill Comparisons project.)
HOUSE BILL 3548
With Braley (Democrat), original co-sponsors included Reps. James P. McGovern (MA-3), and Nancy E. Boyda (KS-2), Democrats, and W. Todd Akin (MO-2) and Dan Burton (IN-5), the sole Republicans. Subsequently, by authority of Clause 7 of Rule XII of the House Rules, the following Representatives (all Democrats) joined in co-sponsorship: Silvestre Rejes (TX-16) and Elijah E. Cummings (MD-7) on 9/26/7; Phil Hare (IL-17) and Bart Gordon (TN-6), 10/15/7; Henry C. "Hank" Johnson, Jr., (GA-4) and Peter Welch (VT), 10/16/7; Jason Altmire (PA-4), 10/17/7; Gabrielle Giffords (AZ-8), 10/22/7; Baron P. Hill (IN-9), Rahm Emanuel (IL-5), and Tim Mahoney (FL-16), 10/23/7; Steve Kagen (WI-8) and Carol Shea-Porter (NH-1), 10/24/7; Earl Blumenauer (OR-3), 10/29/7; Zachary T. Space (OH-18), James P. Moran (VA-8), and Susan A. Davis (CA-53), 10/30/7; Leonard L. Boswell (IA-3), 10/31/7; Danny K. Davis (Il-7) and Betty Sutton (OH-13), 11/5/7; Tom Lantos (CA-12), 11/6/7; John Barrow (GA-12), 11/7/7; Mark Udall (CO-2), 11/8/7; Edolphus Towns (NY-10), 11/15/7; Melissa L. Bean (IL-8), 12/17/7; Chris Van Hollen (MD-8), 12/19/7; Paul W. Hodes (NH-2), 1/28/7; and John Lewis (GA-5), 2/6/8.
The bill was referred to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Henry A. Waxman (CA-30), chairman. On October 1, 2007, that committee referred H.R. 3548 to its Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives, which met on January 29, 2008, beginning at 2 p.m. in Room 2154 of the Rayburn House Office Building for consideration and a mark-up session. The subcommittee, after hearing public witnesses, agreed by voice vote to forward the bill to the full committee.
On February 26, 2008, the House Small Business Committee, Subcommittee on Contracting and Technology, chaired by Rep. Braley, held a hearing on the benefits of plain language. Subcommittee members present also included Reps. Henry Cuellar (TX-28), Yvette Clarke (NY-11), and David Davis (TN-1). Witnesses speaking in support of the bill and its purposes included Hon. Christopher Cox (chairman, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission), Robert Romasco (AARP), Todd McCracken (National Small Business Association), Keith Hall (National Association for the Self-Employed), Dr. Annetta Cheek (Center for Plain Language), and Ms. Christine Grundmeyer (Auxi Health Services, in behalf of the National Association for Home Care and Hospice and the Iowa Alliance in Home Care). ("Subcommittee Hearing on Plain Language in Paperwork - The Benefits to Small Business," Ser. No. 110-73 [HTML;
PDF; VIDEO, in order: Braley, opening statement, Rep. Davis, Cox, Romasco, McCracken, Hall, Cheek, Grundmeyer, Braley/Grundmeyer, Davis/Cheek, Clarke/Hall, Braley].)
On March 13, 2008, in Room 2154, Rayburn Building, the full Committee on Oversight and Government Reform met. Its day began at 10am, and among its tasks was to consider H.R. 3548. The Committee held a mark-up session, at which it proposed amendments and deletions, and ordered, by voice vote, that the newly amended version be reported to the House. (See this version
here, as "Version #2" in the Plain Writing Association's Bill Comparisons project; House Report 110-580 [HTML,
The Report reveals some of the who, what, and when of the amendments. According to the Report, "Mr. Braley offered an amendment, passed by voice vote, to clarify that documents relating to filing taxes are covered by the bill, to require GAO to evaluate existing plain language guidance and provide recommendations to Congress and OMB, and to require that GAO's recommendations be incorporated into the Federal Plain Language Guidelines and the Plain English Handbook." Those alterations are enbodied in Sections 4(d), 5(c), and 4(f), respectively. (See Ver. #2.)
In addition, Rep. Virginia Foxx (NC-5), Republican, "offered an amendment, which passed by voice vote, to require agencies to preserve the role of English to the maximum extent practicable by using the English language in covered documents." That amendment is embodied in Section 4(a)(3). (See Ver. #2.)
The use of "English" likely prompted the additional amendments of Section 4(c), which clarified that nothing in the Act should be construed as, for instance, prohibiting the use of any language other than English. For similar reasons, Mr. Braley later noted in House floor proceedings that "nothing in this bill is intended to impact the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Executive Order 13166, Department of Justice LEP Guidance, any agency LEP guidance, or any other statute, executive order, agency guidance, regulation, or court order regarding language access." (April 14, 2008, Congressional Record, p. H2238
VIDEO: Rep. Braley comment is at 3:15 p.m.].)
Note also that the amendment contained in 5(a)(6) specified, though did not require, that plain language be applied to regulations "to the extent practicable and appropriate." It was probably to that amendment that Rep. Foxx would later refer (arguably inaccurately) during the House floor proceedings of April 14:
During committee consideration of this legislation, Republican amendments were adopted that further the cause of requiring the use of plain language. Mr. Sali succeeded in revising the bill to require plain language be used in preparing collection of information, primarily tax documents, as well as regulations issued by federal agencies.
While the amendment called for "using, to the extent practicable and appropriate, plain language in regulations," it did not require that plain language be used in all regulations (and in any case, the amendment would ultimately not appear in the law that was passed in the subsequent (111th) Congress). In fact, no version of any of the plain language bills of the 110th and 111th Congresses
applied directly to the writing of regulations. They applied solely to documents issued by Executive agencies (which, of course, write the regulations), but they contained a noted exception in the definition of "Covered Document," which was expressed either in the phrase, "other than a regulation," or (in H.R. 3548), "but does not include a regulation." In this one key respect, it differed sharply from the demands made upon Federal agencies back in 1998, under President Bill Clinton's Memorandum on plain language, which called on the Executive agencies to "use plain language in all proposed and final rulemaking documents published in the Federal Register" (see our Background section for more on Clinton's Memorandum).
(April 14, 2008, Congressional Record, p. H2238
PDF, VIDEO: Rep. Foxx, 3:17-3:18 p.m.].)
Budget Office Cost Estimate
On April 8, 2008, Congressional Budget Office director Peter R. Orszag submitted to chairman Waxman the CBO's cost estimate for the Plain Language in Government Communications Act of 2007 (required by clauses 3(c)(2) and 3(c)3 of rule XIII of the Rules of the House of Representatives and sections 308(a) and 402 of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974):
CBO estimates that implementing H.R. 3548 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 significant.
Debate on the House Floor
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 the Office of Management and Budget, CBO estimates that implementing this bill would not significantly increase the cost of preparing various paper or electronic documents used throughout the government.
H.R. 3548 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 governments.
The CBO staff contact for this estimate is Matthew Pickford. This estimate was approved by Peter H. Fontaine, Assistant Director for Budget Analysis.
(From: CBO.gov, doc. 9114.)
On April 10, 2008, at 10:31 a.m., the bill was reported favorably, with amendments, by chairman Waxman, and at 10:32 a.m., H.R. 3548 was placed on Union Calendar 358. (Note: The Union Calendar is the calendar of the "Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union"—or "Committee of the Whole." All House bills involving money issues must first be heard by the Committee of the Whole, which has the same members as are in the House, but requires only 100 members for a quorum.) (House Report 110-580 [HTML,
By the time that the bill was considered by the House on April 14, 2008, additional alterations had been made to the bill. (See this final version of H.R. 3548
here, as "Version #3" in the Plain Writing Association's Bill Comparisons project.) At 3:09 p.m., Rep. Braley moved to suspend the rules and pass H.R. 3548, as amended. (Note: Bills "on suspension," which limit debate and prohibit any other actions that could prohibit consideration, are almost always non-controversial bills that have bi-partisan support. Following such a motion, debating begins, but is limited to 40 minutes.) Thus, H.R. 3548 was debated under suspension of the rules and 20 minutes each were allotted to the two speakers (both in support of the bill): Reps. Braley (IO), Democrat, and Virginia Foxx (NC-5), Republican. Rep. Bill Sali (ID-1), Republican, also speaks in support, using part of the balance of Ms. Foxx's time. (April 14, 2008, Congressional Record, pp. H2237-2239
VIDEO: entire debate, 3:09-3:25 p.m.;
VIDEO: Rep. Foxx, 3:17-3:18 p.m.].)
At the conclusion of debate, at 3:24 p.m., the yeas and nays were demanded and ordered. Pursuant to the provisions of clause 8, rule XX, the Chair announced that further proceedings on the motion would be postponed.
The House Vote
At 7:07 p.m., consideration of the bill as unfinished business began. A 5-minute vote of yeas and nays was taken on Rep. Braley's motion to suspend the rules—which would, in effect, end further debate and any other actions that could prohibit consideration— and pass the bill. By 7:14 p.m., the motion was agreed to (and a motion to reconsider was laid on the table—i.e., killed). The vote, requiring a two-thirds majority (252 votes) of those present, was 376 yeas (202 Democrats; 174 Republicans), 1 nay (Republican), and 54 Not Voting (31 Democrats; 23 Republicans). (April 14, 2008, Congressional Record, p. H2245 [HTML,
PDF]; Roll No. 185 [voting]: GovTrack.us, Clerk.House.gov.)
(Note that 6 of the 54 "Not Voting" would later clarify that they would have voted in the affirmative had they been able to attend. Those were Democrats Mark Udall (CO-2), Sanford Bishop (GA-2), Thomas Allen (ME-1),
and Adam Smith (WA-9) and Republicans William Shuster (PA-9) and Philip English (PA-3).)
The office of Rep. Jeff Flake, the lone "nay" voter, offered this simple explanation:
Republican Congressman Jeff Flake, who represents Arizona’s Sixth District, today released the following statement regarding his vote against the Plain Language in Government Communications Act, which is estimated to cost $2 million a year. The bill duplicates numerous executive orders and agency initiatives. "Bad bill. Voted no," said Flake.
H.R. 3548 in the Senate
On April 15, 2008, the final, amended version of H.R. 3548 was received in the Senate; and on August 1, the bill was read twice and placed on the Senate Legislative Calendar (Calendar No. 929) under General Orders (Congressional Record, p. S8033). The bill was never voted on in the Senate, but would be re-introduced, with some changes, in the 111th Congress, as H.R. 946.
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