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November 01, 2013

ABA urges use of plain language in regulations

The ABA urged Congress this month to enact legislation that would require the use of plain language for all new and substantially revised federal regulations in accordance with guidance issued by the Office of Management and Budget under the Plain Writing Act of 2010.

The legislation, H.R. 1557 and S. 807, would require federal agencies to write regulations using plain language that is clear, concise, and well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience. The House bill also includes language supported by the ABA that would minimize cross references in regulations.

The ABA has long urged federal agencies to promote understanding of legal obligations by writing plainly worded regulations, and the core objective of both bills falls squarely within the association’s longstanding policy adopted in 1999.

 “The purpose of the policy is straightforward: because regulations have the force of law, it is only just and fair that they be readily comprehensible to those who are or may be subject to the obligations they create.” ABA Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman wrote in Nov. 14 letters to the House Judiciary Committee, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “In our view, when the federal government issues rules that clearly articulate both what is required and the expected benefits, it is most likely to achieve the goals of accountability and transparency,” he said.

Techniques that may be used for writing plainly worded regulations, Susman said, include:

  • organizing them for the convenience of their readers;
  • using direct and easily understood language;
  • writing in short sentences, in the active voice; and
  • using helpful stylistic devices, such as question-and-answer formats, vertical lists, spacing that facilitates clarity, and tables.

Susman added that the ABA believes the bills could be further improved by adopting some technical and clarifying amendments, including elimination of an “unrealistic” requirement in H.R. 1557 that the agency head or a person designated by him or her certify that the agency’s head personally has read the text of every proposed or final regulation and that it is in plain language.

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