One of the most famous speeches in American history – President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – is a mere 272 words long and written in clear, strong and simple language.
Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution are longer, but still short enough that each can be read in one sitting. Each uses language that can be easily understood and appreciated today by the average high school student.
The same can’t be said of the bills our elected representatives in Congress are asked to vote on. The legislation can go on and on and on. The longest bills top 1,000 pages and a few are closer to 2,000 pages.
It seems like you need a graduate degree and years of experience working in Congress to understand what the measures actually say. Members of the Senate and House have to rely on their staffs to explain to them what they’re voting on – the bills are too long and complicated for most members to read them all the way through and understand them.
Highly specialized staffers, government lawyers, lobbyists, industry executives and their lawyers write these bills. Often bills are purposely written to obscure the true intent, meaning and effect.
Why? To make bills subject to interpretation by those trying to gain an edge. This only invites lawsuits and agency confusion.
And it’s not just the language that’s confusing. Most bills reference other laws and regulations that must be studied to fully understand the legislation.
Since our lawmakers can’t really understand the bills they’re voting on, how can we expect them to make the right decisions in their votes?
It’s time to shorten and simplify legislation. For starters, I say that no single bill should exceed 50 pages. And all bills should be required to meet a “plain language” standard. These two steps would force staff members writing the bills to make the legislation understandable and succinct.
In addition, every bill should be accompanied by a list of everyone who had a hand in crafting the measure – not just congressional staff but also lobbyists, outside lawyers, researchers at think tanks, people working at nonprofits and others.
Many states have enacted laws that require consumer contracts to be written in plain language. For example, New York state requires such contracts to be “written in a clear and coherent manner using words with common and everyday meanings.”
It’s ironic that the federal government enacted the “Truth in Lending Act” that requires certain disclosures be made to consumers, yet there is no requirement for those disclosures to be written in plain language.
Our Constitution starts with the words “We the People.” But so much of the legislation that affects the lives of the American people today is written in language almost none of us has the time or ability to understand. It’s as if the bills were written in some secret code understood only by insiders.
The only way to ensure a more informed and engaged public – and more informed and engaged members of Congress – is to simplify and shorten that secret code so it’s no longer secret. That way we can all understand what our elected representatives are up to under the Capitol dome – and so can they.