HOUSE BILL 946
The "Plain Language Act of 2009" was introduced as House Bill 946 (H.R. 946) by Rep. Bruce L. Braley (IA-1), Democrat, into the U.S. House of Representatives at the First session of the 111th Congress on February 10, 2009 (one month before its companion bill, S. 574, was introduced—see previous section). Subsequently, by authority of Clause 7 of Rule XII of the House Rules, ten co-sponsors were added; four of the co-sponsors were among those who had co-sponsored the previous Congress's Plain Language in Government Communications Act of 2007: Dan Burton (IN-5), Republican, on February 25, 2009, and Democrats Peter Welch (VT) and Leonard L. Boswell (IA-3), March 3, 2009, and James P. Moran (VA-8), April 1, 2009. The six other co-sponsors were
Virginia Foxx (NC-5), Republican, on February 25, 2009, and David Loebsack (IA-2), March 3, 2009, Albio Sires (NJ-13), March 25, 2009; Melvin L. Watt (NC-12), May 13, 2009; Kathleen A. Dahlkemper (PA-3), June 23, 2009, and Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC), March 2, 2010. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Edolphus Towns (NY-10), chairman. (Congressional Record, pp. H1538-1540
PDF]; see the introduced version
here, as "Version #1" in the Plain Writing Association's Bill Comparisons project.)
On March 4, 2010, the Committee met in open session to consider H.R. 946; a mark-up session was held, and the bill was ordered by voice vote to be reported, as amended, to the House. (See this newly amended version, now called the "Plain Writing Act of 2010,"
here, as "Version #2" in the Plain Writing Association's Bill Comparisons project; [VIDEO: entire Committee meeting, in which discussion of the act begins at 6 minutes, 2 seconds into the video and ends at 11 minutes, 2 seconds].) In addition to chairman Towns, Rep. Darrell Issa (CA-49), ranking Republican member of the committee, also spoke briefly.
Indirectly acknowledging the "elephant in the room"—that the bill did not apply to the laws that Congress itself writes—Rep. Issa commented: "I would only anecdotally say that once...this becomes law, once we in fact have taken a big step towards making it easier for...Americans to understand correspondence they receive from government, I hope we will do the same thing with the language of bills that we write here in the Congress." (VIDEO: in Committee meeting, comment appears from 7 minutes, 48 seconds to 8 minutes, 6 seconds into the video)
Rep. Braley, when later speaking on the House floor during the debate over the bill, also made what can only be taken as a facetious jab at Congress's poor writing of its bills:
I would also remind my colleagues that this plain language in government communications has been incorporated into the Senate-passed health care bill, it was incorporated into the House-passed health care bill, and it is important that we move forward from this point in changing the way that government speaks to its citizens.
As the final health-care legislation has been considered quite confusing and even unreadable, for both its lack of clarity and absence of concision, that legislation generally represents the antithesis of the goal of "plain language in government communications."
(March 17, 2010, Congressional Record, p. H1539 [HTML;
VIDEO: in first House debate on H.R. 946, comment appears from 7 minutes, 42 seconds to 7 minutes, 51 seconds into video].)
The Plain Language Act/Plain Writing Act makes no mention of the Legislative branch in its requirements, for the entire bill applies solely to the Executive branch, which, among other things, creates regulations. However, no version of this bill, nor any of the other plain language bills proposed in the 110th and 111th Congresses, apply to the writing of regulations. Instead, they all include an exception in their definition of "Covered Document," expressed in the simple phrase: "other than a regulation" (or, in H.R. 3548, "but does not include a regulation").
When S. 2291 had been introduced on the Senate floor in 2007, its chief sponsor Daniel K. Akaka explained that "this bill does not cover regulations, so that agencies can focus first on improving their every day communications with the American people." Akaka continued, "We recognize that it will be more challenging to write regulations—which by their nature often will be complex and technical—in plain language." ("Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions - (Senate - november 1, 2007)," Congressional Record, p. S13692)
In its section-by-section coverage, the Committee's Report (House Report 111-432
PDF].) contained explanations of the various proposed amendments (referred to collectively as "the Towns amendment"). The bill's original section 3, subsection (2)(A) had defined "covered document" as any document issued by an agency to the public, except regulations. The amendment retained the exception of regulations and narrowed its scope even further:
The Towns amendment, adopted during Committee consideration, narrowed the scope of documents covered by the bill to ensure that agencies focus on documents Americans are most likely to encounter. The new definition includes documents that explain to the public how to comply with a federal requirement. The Committee intends this to include agency guidance documents. However, the Committee recognizes that some guidance documents must include technical or legal terminology in order to accurately describe a statutory or regulatory requirement.
The section-by-section coverage also indicated that "the Towns amendment replaced the term plain language with plain writing throughout the bill," explaining simply that "the term is intended to have the same meaning as the term plain language." It may be supposed that "language" also had the problem of ambiguity as it could apply to spoken as well as written communications. (And, presumably, replacing it with "English" might suggest endorsement of English as the nation's official language.)
Explaining the new subsection (a) in section 4:
The bill as introduced required agencies to report on some of the actions described. The Towns amendment added an affirmative requirement that agencies perform these actions rather than just reporting on what the agency has done. The Towns amendment also added the requirement that each agency make information about its plain writing efforts available on its website.
On section 4, old subsection (b), new subsection (c):
The bill as introduced required OMB to issue this guidance as a circular. The Towns amendment did not include this requirement in order to ensure OMB has the flexibility to issue guidance in the most effective and appropriate form.
On section 5, subsection (b): "The Towns amendment changed the reporting requirements in this section to require agency reports to be published online rather than just being sent to Congress."
...The Towns amendment gave OMB the authority under subsection (c) to designate a lead agency to coordinate this effort and to use interagency working groups to assist in developing the guidance. [Note that this was precisely the wording of an amendment that Senator Akaka is supposed to have intended to offer in the earlier (110th) Congress in the Senate's version of the Plain Language in Government Communications bill of 2007.] The Committee believes OMB should utilize interagency groups to provide input on developing guidance and to provide feedback on draft guidance. OMB should reach out in particular to the agencies that would likely issue larger numbers of covered documents.
The Towns amendment also added to the bill section 6, clarifying that the Act is not judicially reviewable. This part of the Towns amendment was identical to the sole amendment added the previous year during the Senate committee's deliberations on the companion bill S. 574, discussed in our previous section. However, many of the other parts of the Towns amendment would increase the estimated cost of the legislation in comparison to S. 574. (House Report 111-432
Budget Office Cost Estimate
On March 4, 2010, Congressional Budget Office director Douglas W. Elmendorf submitted to chairman Towns the CBO's cost estimate for the Plain Language Act of 2009 (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. 946 would cost about $5 million a year for agencies to implement the additional employee training and reporting requirements, subject to 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; therefore, pay-as-you-go procedures would apply. CBO estimates, however, that any net increase in spending by those agencies would not be significant. Enacting the legislation would not affect revenues.
First 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 OMB, 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. 946 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.
On April 3, 2009, CBO transmitted a cost estimate for S. 574, the Plain Writing Act of 2009, as ordered reported by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on April 1, 2009. Both pieces of legislation are similar in that they require federal agencies to use plain language in all documents, but H.R. 946 creates additional requirements on government agencies. CBO's cost estimates reflect those differences.
The CBO staff contact for this estimate is Matthew Pickford. This estimate was approved by Theresa Gullo, Deputy Assistant Director for Budget Analysis."
(From: CBO.gov, doc. 11300; for Pay-As-You-Go effects, see CBO.gov, doc. 11348.)
On March 11, 2010, at 2:19 p.m., the bill was reported favorably, with amendment, by chairman Towns; and at 2:20 p.m., H.R. 946 was placed on Union Calendar 248, committed to the Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union. (House Report 111-432
By the time that the bill was considered by the House on March 17, 2008, a section 7, relating to compliance with the Pay-As-You-Go Act of 2010, had been added to the proposed bill. (See this version
here, as "Version #3" in the Plain Writing Association's Bill Comparisons project.) At 1:53 p.m., Rep. William Lacy Clay (MO-1), Democratic member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and chairman of its Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives, moved to suspend the rules and pass H.R. 946, as amended. Thus, H.R. 946 was debated under suspension of the rules and 20 minutes each were allotted to the two speakers (both in support of the bill): Rep. William Lacy Clay (MO-1), Democrat, who also yields part of his time to Reps. Braley and Towns, and Rep. Brian Bilbray (CA-50), Republican, both members of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. (March 17, 2010, Congressional Record, pp. H1538-1540
VIDEO: entire first House debate on H.R. 946, 1:53-2:11 p.m., also includes remarks by Rep. Braley, beginning at 1:58pm, and chairman Towns, beginning at 2:04pm;
VIDEO: shows mainly Rep. Bilbray, 1:55-1:57 p.m;
VIDEO: shows mainly Rep. Towns, 2:04-2:08 p.m.])
At the conclusion of debate, at 2:11 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 First House Vote
At 4:46 p.m., consideration of the bill as unfinished business began. A vote of yeas and nays was taken on Rep. Clay'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 4:54 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 (280 votes) of those present, was 386 yeas (247 Democrats; 139 Republicans), 33 nays (33 Republicans), and 11 Not Voting (5 Democrats; 6 Republicans). (March 17, 2010, Congressional Record, p. H1560
PDF]; Roll No. 126 [voting]:
The next day, March 18, H.R. 946 was received in the Senate, read twice, and placed on the Senate Legislative Calendar (Calendar No. 321) under General Orders.
H.R. 946 on the Senate Floor
On September 27, 2010, at 9:46 p.m., H.R. 946 was considered in the U.S. Senate by unanimous consent, and an amendment (SA 4663) was proposed by Senator Casey for Senator Akaka. The amendment was agreed to by unanimous consent, and the bill, as amended, was read a third time and passed. (See this final version
here, as "Version #4" in the Plain Writing Association's Bill Comparisons project.) The motion to reconsider was laid upon the table with no intervening action or debate, and any statements related to the bill were to be printed in the Congressional Record. (Congressional Record, p. S7556
VIDEO: 9:46-9:47 p.m.])
(Note, an amendment with the same wording as SA 4663 had been previously offered by Senator Akaka, but no action was ever taken on that amendment [SA 4653, Congressional Record, p. S7298].)
The next day, on September 28, at 12:05 p.m., a message on the Senate action was sent to the House (VIDEO). And Rep. Braley issued a press release stating, in part, that:
Rep. Bruce Braley announced today the US Senate passed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 (H.R. 946) late Monday night…. Senator Bob Bennett (R-Utah) had placed a hold on the bill for months, but recently agreed to lift it after Braley met with him personally…. In June, Braley met with Bennett to discuss the bill’s merits and try to alleviate any of Bennett’s concerns. After making minor changes, Bennett lifted his hold and the bill passed last night by unanimous consent. The amended Senate version will now go back to the House for final passage.
Final Debate on the House Floor
("U.S. Rep. Braley: Senate Passes Braley Plain Language Act," IowaPolitics.com, Sept. 28, 2010 [HTML])
On September 29, 2010, at 7:53 p.m., Rep. William Lacy Clay (MO-1), chairman of the Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives, moved that the House suspend the rules and agree to the Senate's amendments to H.R. 946. Thus, the debate began, with 20 minutes each allotted to the two speakers: Rep. Clay, a Democrat, in support of the bill and the Senate amendments, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (UT03), a Republican, opposed to the bill. Rep. Braley also spoke, using a portion of time yielded by Rep. Clay. At 8:05 p.m., the debate concluded and the yeas and nays were demanded and ordered. Pursuant to the provisions of clause 8, rule XX, the chair announced the further proceedings on the motion would be postponed. (September 29, 2010, Congressional Record, pp. H7314-7316
VIDEO: entire final House debate on H.R. 946, from 7:53-8:05 p.m.].)
At 11:38 p.m., consideration of the amendments to the bill as unfinished business began. A vote of yeas and nays was taken on Rep. Clay's motion to suspend the rules and agree to the Senate amendments—and thus pass the bill. By 11:44 p.m., the motion was agreed to (and a motion to reconsider was laid on the table). The vote, requiring a two-thirds majority (282 votes) of those present, was 341 yeas (249 Democrats; 92 Republicans), 82 nays (2 Democrats; 80 Republicans), and 9 not voting (3 Democrats; 6 Republicans). (September 29, 2010, Congressional Record, pp. H7371-7372
PDF]; Roll No. 562 [voting]: GovTrack.us, Clerk.House.gov).
Thus, H.R. 946, the Plain Writing Act of 2010 was cleared for the White House, September 29, 2010. On Friday, October 1, it was presented to the President of the United States of America, who would have ten days—excluding (2) Sundays—to sign it. Using all the time allotted, President Obama signed the bill on Wednesday, October 13, 2010, and the Plain Writing Act of 2010 became law—Public Law No. 111-274 (PL 111-1274
PDF]), to be entered into volume 124, pp. 2861-2863, of the United States Statutes at Large (124 Stat. 2861). ("Statement by the Press Secretary," The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, October 13, 2010
Plain Writing Legislation: A Comparison of Bills
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Plain Writing Legislative History
This Project of the Plain Writing Association presents a legislative history of the passage of the Plain Writing Act of 2010, documenting the process by which failed plain-writing legislation in the 110th and 111th Congresses ultimately led to the Act. (MORE)
Government Use of Plain Language Editing Software
This Project of the Plain Writing Association is a separate website (writersupercenter.com/stylewriterforgovernment) which advocates the use of the ground-breaking plain-English editing software known as StyleWriter Software to assist government in writing more clearly and concisely, in compliance with the Plain Writing Act. (MORE)
The Media's Response to Plain Writing Legislative Efforts
This ongoing Project of the Plain Writing Association attempts to document the media's response to the legislative efforts leading to the Plain Writing Act of 2010. Focusing mainly on the period from 2007 to 2010, the Project, arranged chronologically, presents links to articles and posts in blogs, newspapers, and other periodicals. (MORE)
A Historical Bibliography of the Plain Language Movement
— This ongoing Project of the Plain Writing Association presents links to articles that cover the main categories of the history of the plain language movement within American government. (MORE)
PLAIN ENGLISH SOFTWARE
StyleWriter For Government Website
Through our writersupercenter.com/stylewriterforgovernment website, PWA distributes plain-writing editing software to governments, businesses, organizations, and individuals. (MORE)
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