Legislation readability.

I just used a bit of software to run a Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test on ten random bills prefiled for the 2008 General Assembly session. Every single bill required at least a college education to understand. Though I appreciate that our legislation must be written in a way that satisfies legal standards, because bill summaries often don’t describe bills in a useful level of detail, this would seem to present a significant obstacle for regular people trying to figure out what’s going on in Richmond.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

6 replies on “Legislation readability.”

  1. Interesting test. Nonetheless, I do not think the level of reading expertise is a problem. I believe the real issue is sheer amount of legislative detail.

    Without getting rid of much of the detail, simplifying the language of legislation is unlikely to help. In fact, what simpler and explanatory language might accomplish is to significantly lengthen each bill.

    The task of limited government involves lots of details. The task of the big, expansive government that we actually have involves vastly many more details. When we have a big, expansive government, any chance that the general public will read a large portion of legislative proposals is just about nil. In fact, there is good reason to doubt our legislators read enough of what they pass.

    So what do we do? How do we limit the legislative detail? Less government perhaps? Would you welcome such a change? How likely is it that the Democratic Party would vote for such a change? How many of our current crop of legislators would vote to make themselves less powerful?

  2. Oh, I don’t propose changing how we write our laws — that is, the actual words that we use. So many very specific legal terms have been subject of so many very specific court rulings that doing so would leave us in a legal morass for decades to come. I don’t care how simple that government is, so long as we live within a democratic society, our laws will be long and confusing — there’s not a nation in the world that’s done otherwise.

    The only specific solution that I can envision is the improvement of bill summaries. If the bills themselves are too confusing for most people — and I’d say a great many are too confusing for me — then the summaries should be improved so that regular people me don’t need to read the bills. Many of them are ridiculously nebulous and nonspecific. Here’s a bill description that manages to be both an example of what not to do and an example of how we could improve the summaries:

    Removes the language stating that the Cord Blood Bank will be for the treatment of Virginians, in order to make more federal funding opportunities available.

    “Removes the language”? I’d guess that a majority of substantive (that is, not commendation) bills remove language from existing law. That’s not normally specified, and it shouldn’t be. Nobody cares whether a bill is adding or removing language, because it’s confusing. In this case, it’s really confusing — by removing language we’re broadening the bill, the opposite of what would be expected.

    “in order to make more federal funding opportunities available” Now that’s useful. Had that not been specified, it would be a mystery what the purpose of this bill is. Very few bills provide anything this frank, and I’m impressed. Whoever at DLAS wrote this up (I think that’s where these come from) did a great job by adding this language.

    But what’s missing in this summary? An explanation of what the actual, substantive difference will be. Yes, we could get federal funding. That’s great. But if we’re opening our cord blood bank to anybody — not just Virginians — what does that mean, other than additional funding opportunities? Would we be we obligated to serve everybody in the US? Everybody in the world? Is that good, or bad?

    I don’t actually care about this specific bill, it’s just a convenient example. The point is that the improvement of our bill summaries could be done without a great deal of trouble. It might not solve the problem of legislation being too confusing for the average engaged citizen, but I think it would help.

  3. The idea is good, but I seriously doubt (and I think you do too) that anything will come of the suggestion. I see several reasons for such cynicism.

    1. In politics, some people consider everything fair game. That includes the summary of a bill. Legislators will only write a good summary when they want us to understand their bills. Otherwise, they will write a summary that helps to sell their bills. Consider that that rotten transportation bill the Virginia Assembly passed not so long ago. The summary tells little or nothing about some of the most controversial parts.

    See this link for HB3202

    2. Writing takes time and effort. Good writing is difficult, and people generally avoid hard work.

    3. Good writers that can write good legislation are scarce. So such writers must focus on the legislation and related amendments. Frequent amendments complicate the problem of writing a good summary. Yet the legislation that is most likely to need a good summary is also the legislation most likely to be amended.

  4. The idea is good, but I seriously doubt (and I think you do too) that anything will come of the suggestion.

    Well, so long as it’s just me yammering on here, no, I don’t expect anything to happen. :)

    FWIW, I don’t think legislators (or, rather, their LAs) write bill summaries. Like the text of the bills, I believe that work falls to the Division of Legislative Services (not DLAS, as I previously wrote). But I’m not certain about that.

  5. Adding, in layman’s terms, the practical impact of a particular law to the summary would be a great thing.

  6. Tom @ 9:17 gets it right (whoa, did you just see that? Rip in the space-time continuum). To change this, you’d have to get senior good-gov’t types (do such people exist?) on both sides of the aisle to spend some real time and effort on the matter. In terms of priorities? Just about rock bottom.

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