Tax forms and other government documents will now be subject to a kind of literacy test, under a new government law that so far has not attracted a whole lot of attention.

Earlier this month, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act, which requires the federal government to write documents, such as tax forms, federal student aid applications, and Veterans Administration forms in easy-to-understand language. (Good luck with that.) Each federal agency will be required under the law to appoint a “plain writing” official to oversee implementation of the act and train employees in the art of plain writing. Too bad Ernest Hemingway isn’t around anymore.

Each agency would also have to create and maintain a plain writing section of its website that would be accessible from the home page, such as IRS.gov.


One thing most people can agree on is that government documents are seldom written in plain English. Maybe that’s one reason why the bill passed with relative unanimity in a seldom unanimous Congress.

The House approved the bill, which was introduced by Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, in February, by a 386-33 margin, and more recently in its final version by a vote of 341-82. However, one lone Republican senator, Bob Bennett of Utah, put the bill on hold for months. Braley requested a meeting with him in June and they agreed on some changes, prompting Bennett to lift his hold. Maybe he just needed some convincing that the days of flowery language in government documents have long since passed.

In any case, Bennett failed to win his fellow Utah Republicans’ nomination in May for a fourth term in the Senate, so maybe it wasn’t worth it anymore to keep fighting the good fight for the days of ringing oratorical flourishes in the halls of the Senate. But the rest of his Senate colleagues, in a hurry to get out of town to campaign for the midterm elections, passed the bill earlier this month by unanimous consent, and President Obama signed it into law on Oct. 13.

The government has been talking (and talking) about simplifying its own language for a long time. Back in the Clinton administration, Vice President Al Gore set up the Plain Language Action Network. Its website (PlainLanguage.gov) includes before-and-after examples of an IRS letter from 2002 that supposedly have been rendered more understandable, largely because they appear to have been formatted differently.

Everyone from George Orwell to the late NBC newscaster Edwin Newman has called over the years for less reliance on government-speak. The new law is reminiscent of the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980, which mostly resulted in the IRS mailing out tax forms to fewer people so they had to visit the local post office or library to get the necessary paperwork instead.

Now in the age of the World Wide Web, the paperwork hasn’t really diminished all that much. It’s all just up on the Internet now, where it can be printed out at your own expense. Recently the IRS decided to stop sending paper tax form packages to people’s mailboxes next tax season, but of course that doesn’t mean it expects them to skip doing their taxes.

The new plain writing law will not apply to regulations or to congressional laws themselves, but only to communications with the public. The documents have to be those necessary for obtaining a government benefit or service, or for filing taxes. They can also be documents that provide information about any federal government benefit or service, or how to comply with a requirement that the government administers or enforces. But don’t expect the IRS’s tax rules and regulations to get any easier to decipher, or Congress’s own 2,000-page stacks of legislation to become any more compellingly readable than they are today.

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