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National Perspective | GOVERNMENT

What's Gore Trying to Eliminate? It's the Talk of the Town

For a year, he's been leading a project to remove confusing gobbledygook from government documents. It's just a part of VPOTUS' REGO priority.

April 20, 1999|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The VPOTUS, in consultation with PLAN and other leading agents of the federal bureaucracy, acting according to a June POTUS memo and as part of the VPOTUS' REGO priority, has advanced an initiative against language that is opaque and difficult to discern when used by the Federal Government to communicate with the public.

Yes, this is a story about impenetrable language.

In this city, it comes in all varieties. There's State Department-speak, IRS-talk, congressional memo-jumbo and the mind-numbing regulatory babble of the Federal Register--all of it layered with the burden of law and spin and politics.

There's also the meaning of "is," as in "it depends what your definition of 'is' is." But we're not getting into that now.

For about a year, the vice president (a.k.a. the VPOTUS) has been engineering a revolution against convoluted writing.

At worst, the effort seems Quixotic; at best, it's a darn good idea, according to just about everybody. (With exceptions such as most lawyers and almost all accountants, who don't believe in the use of synonyms.) At Gore's urging, President Clinton signed an executive memorandum last June that requires federal bureaucrats to simplify written communications.

By 2002, all new and old federal documents, most penned by lawyers, are supposed to be written in so-called plain language.

But there is not much enforcement muscle behind the memo, except that Gore likes it. Yet it remains to be seen whether he'll still be around after 2000.

"Never mind the political life of the veep, who I guess we could all wait out," says a lawyer at a top agency. "Who wants to be the agency head lampooned in the press for mucky regulations? If you're part of the team, you ought to be trying."

After eight monthly awards to bad-language busters, the word is spreading--but not fast enough, say advocates. The people who torture the language, after all, have their reasons: bad habits, institutional laziness and, most insidious, unclear language serves the people in power and insulates them from public view.

The Federal Register, which publishes 77,000 pages of regulations a year, is supposed to be cleaned up so that all new laws are readable. No more words that don't make sense. No more "herein" and "in consultation with" and "transmitted to."

Specifically, the presidential memorandum calls for short sentences, the use of "you" and other personal pronouns, the active voice, better use of graphics, and, of all things, "everyday words."

The plain language memorandum came out of Gore's reinventing government (REGO) shop, which operates around the corner from the White House in a suite of state-of-the-art offices.

In the limousine on the way to roll out the plain language initiative, Gore decided to give a monthly No Gobbledygook Award, which has turned into an opportunity for a lowly bureaucrat to have a photo taken with the vice president.

"The award . . . has turned out to be a good way to keep attention on the whole affair," says Annetta L. Cheek, the no-nonsense head of the Plain Language Action Network (PLAN), the 40 bureaucrats who meet monthly to spread the gospel of clarity.

November's winner of the No Gobbledygook Award, for example, was an Agriculture Department employee who rewrote an article on how to safely prepare a turkey. The improvements boiled down to organization, punctuation and sentences such as "Don't just trust a pop-up indicator!"

Early in the effort, Gore thanked Cheek for her "persistence and patience," but his assessment was wrong, she says: "It's my persistence and impatience." A former regulatory writer herself, Cheek trains pit bulls in her spare time, which some days may seem too much like her day job.

"Our goal is for when anybody gets a letter from the government, their gut reaction will be, 'Oh, I know I'll be able to understand this,' " she says, immediately chuckling. "OK," she concedes, "so maybe that's just my vision."

Plain Language Push Not New

The history of the plain language memorandum is one of a cult movement that settled in Washington years ago and had a hard time infiltrating until last spring.

Since before Jimmy Carter arrived here, individuals buried in the bureaucracy struggled against what most Americans experience at some point in their adult lives--whether filling out a tax form, applying for a benefit or, for that matter, trying to build a nuclear reactor: long-winded, verbose prose that often is more hostile than helpful.

Carter developed his own presidential memorandum on plain language and found Fred Emery, then-director of the Federal Register and a promoter of the cause since the 1960s, to do something about it.

"All three television networks came to my office and did a piece on us," Emery says. "But the whole thing went nowhere."

Emery doubts the current effort will get much further but he does find hope in a generation-old effort by law schools to outlaw legalese:

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