Battle of the bill - Annetta Cheek


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How do you get your legislature to pass a bill supporting plain language? This paper will explore the efforts of plain language supporters to get the United States Congress to pass a bill requiring federal agencies to write certain documents in plain language. I’ll report on where we are, how we got there, and what happens next.

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Battle of the bill - Annetta Cheek

  1. 1. The battle of the bill – Plain language in the US government Dr. Annetta L. Cheek Lisbon | 12 Oct. 2010
  2. 2. How it all started • In the early 90s, some federal employees started pushing for plain language. • In 1994, they held their first “Plain English Workshop” – focusing on clear regulations. • The group started meeting regularly, and still meets monthly in Washington, DC. It’s now called PLAIN.
  3. 3. PLAIN has a great website
  4. 4. How PLAIN supports plain language • Holds monthly meetings on plain language topics • Offers free half day training to any federal agency – has training at least 8000 employees in these courses • Developed the “Federal Plain Language Guidelines” for agencies to use - der-friendly.cfm
  5. 5. Clinton Administration Initiatives • The Clinton Administration, 1992 through 2000, was a highpoint in plain language in the government. • Many agencies were very active in plain language – the Security and Exchange Commission, Veterans Affairs, the Social Security Administration, Health and Human Services, and many others • Clinton issued a presidential memo in 1998 - es/memo.cfm
  6. 6. Clinton Administration Initiatives -2 • Vice President Gore started an awards program – the no-gobbledygook awards ning/nogobbledygook.cfm • The awards attracted a lot of press attention • They built enthusiasm among federal employees
  7. 7. And then came the Bush Administration
  8. 8. So we decided we’d try to get a law
  9. 9. What did we think a law would achieve? • It would not be a silver bullet – federal writers would not start writing clearly over night • It would support all the federal employees who are trying to get their agencies to write more clearly • It would make federal agencies aware that Congress cares about clear communication – even if they don’t communicate clearly themselves!
  10. 10. • It would give citizens a tool – it would help them insist that federal agencies write more clearly
  11. 11. How does the US Congress work? • For most matters, to get a law, you must get a bill through both chambers – House and Senate • That means you need two bills, and two sponsors, one in each Chamber
  12. 12. 2006 • A Republican representative from Michigan introduced a bill addressing only regulations. • There was a hearing on the bill, but we couldn’t get a Senate version introduced, so the effort died.
  13. 13. 2007 • After a lot of visiting and talking and visiting and talking on Capitol Hill, we found a sponsor for a bill, freshman Congressman Bruce Braley of Iowa – a former trial attorney.
  14. 14. The Plain Language in Government Act of 2007 • We also found a Senate sponsor – Daniel Akaka, from Hawaii.
  15. 15. 2007 bills • Addressed documents written for the public • Required government-wide guidance • Required agency training • Required agency lead official • Required agency reporting on progress • Did not cover regulations
  16. 16. In 2007 • House voted on the bill, and passed it, 376 to 1 • In the Senate, a conservative Republic Senator put “hold” on the bill, and it never came to a vote • Each “congress” is 2 years. When that congress ends, all pending legislation dies • So in 2009, we had to start over
  17. 17. 2009 • Same two Congressmen – Braley and Akaka – reintroduced similar bills • House passed the bill, this time 386 to 33 • The same Republican Senator put a hold on the bill – again! • Just a couple weeks ago, he agreed to lift the hold
  18. 18. How did we make that happen? • We called everyone we could think of who might be able to influence him and asked them to contact him • We enlisted – a law professor from his home state – a manager at an important firm in his home state – an important small business group in another state - the group asked their Republican Senator to talk to him for us – the National Small Business Association
  19. 19. • And Mr. Braley – the House sponsor – had a meeting with him and asked him to lift his hold
  20. 20. What’s next for these bills? • Still have to get the Senate bill to a floor vote • Then the House has to vote on it again, since getting that Senator to lift his hold required some changes, and both chambers must pass the same version • So, will we get a law this year . . .
  21. 21. And if we don’t succeed this year • We’ll try again in the next Congress
  22. 22. And if we do succeed this year • We’ll be back next year, trying to get one that addresses regulations
  23. 23. Dr. Annetta L. Cheek Chair Center for Plain Language