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Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016

Senator won't win the language fight

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sen. Claire McCaskill - for me at least - has turned out to be a much better representative for Missouri than I had expected. That certainly doesn't mean I will always agree and, in fact, I will probably disagree more often than not with the votes cast by Sen. McCaskill. But overall, I give her credit for her work ethic.

But McCaskill and a handful of other politicians are treading on thin ice with their most recent legislation. My advice for the Democratic Senator from Missouri is simple - tackle those issues that have a reasonable chance for success and quit wasting time on those issues that are doomed from the beginning.

McCaskill is a co-sponsor of the Plain Language in Government Communications Act of 2007. She and others want the federal government to begin providing public documents that the American public can actually read and understand. Good luck Claire!

I am firmly convinced our feds are totally and completely incapable of putting any document in language that is understandable by the masses of Americans. The federal bureaucracy is so entrenched that they have become extremely adept at using 500 words where 50 words would suffice. Let's just call it job security.

"It is ridiculous that average Americans are having trouble understanding their tax forms and other government documents because they are written in complex legal jargon," McCaskill said this week. "This government is here to serve the people so we need to start putting things in plain-language around here."

As we all know, McCaskill is right. But we should also know, the culture of government cannot and will not change their language.

Who do I blame? The gazillion lawyers who write these laws and regulations. And they use that complex "legal jargon" to keep other lawyers from suing the government when something is less that crystal clear. But the lawmakers who want to "dumb down" the language have a distinct problem. They want all policies and procedures, all laws and regulations, written in language that the average citizen can understand. The problem, of course, is that the "average citizen" is pretty darned dumb these days so the rewriting must be reduced to an eighth grade level at best. Third grade might work even better.

I don't see the Internal Revenue Service sending out notices that say, "If you done paid your taxes, you don't got to pay no more." You see, what is "clear and understandable" to one may not be to someone else. So apparently - just like our education system - we're shooting for the lowest common denominator. (You know what's funny? The "average" citizen couldn't explain "lowest common denominator.")

About a hundred years ago when I was in journalism school, we were taught to write newspaper articles aimed for those with an eighth grade education. Thus were the times. But I strongly suspect that same rule may still apply today especially when it comes to anything originating from the government.

I challenge anyone to show me one piece of federal law or regulation or policy that was not written by an attorney. And members of the legal community tend to write in verbose and detailed language that is too laborious for most of us. It's been that way for so long we simply expect the resulting confusion.

On a serious note, I honestly commend Sen. McCaskill for challenging the impossible. Her attempt is not the first to address the topic. Nor will it be the last. But these folk are swimming upstream in a big way. They want to reverse a process that has no solution. They want the federal government to actually consider we the people and not the attorneys who dominate the federal government.

Well good luck Senator. Next time however try something a bit easier like abortion or the war in Iraq or Social Security reform. You stand a better chance with those subjects than you do with changing the culture of Washington.

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Michael Jensen
Michael Jensen