Iowa Senate Race is Pretty Farmin’ Serious

Politically, Iowa remains one of our most interesting states. Obviously, its early caucus status lends itself as a power player in presidential politics. But its makeup is also rather vexing and seemingly unpredictable at times, featuring successes for both Republicans and Democrats — and the longevity of its Senators Chuck Grassley (R) and Tom Harkin (D), who’ve been in office since 1981 and 1985, respectively.

With Harkin retiring, there’s a heated race for his vacated seat featuring Rep. Bruce Braley (D) and State Senator Joni Ernst (R). (I actually interacted often with Braley’s staff during his 2006 campaign, while I was working on a State House race in Waterloo for U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh’s All-America PAC.) Braley, however, has found himself trudging through difficult terrain in light of some unfortunate and dismissive agriculture-related gaffes — the latest in a stump speech by a surrogate. Columnist Kathie Obradovich of The Des Moines Register highlighted Braley’s problems, illustrating how some unfortunate word choices here and there can quickly change the nature of a political campaign.

Below, you’ll find an ad where Ernst attempts to capitalize by relaying her hog castrating bona fides, because… pork. (I like the snuggly pig embrace 20 seconds in, personally.)

Oh yes, it’s campaign season, America. Let’s get hog wild! (I’ll show myself out.)

Plain and Simple: Communications Missing the Mark

The 2010 Plain Writing Act, an attempt to make government communicate more clearly with the public, was a great idea. Saying it has to happen, however, is proving a lot easier than making it happen.

An update from The Washington Post:

Advocates estimate that federal officials have translated just 10 percent of their forms, letters, directives and other documents into “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use,” as the law requires.

Official communications must now employ the active voice, avoid double negatives and use personal pronouns. “Addressees” must now become, simply, “you.” Clunky coinages like “incentivizing” (first known usage 1970) are a no-no. The Code of Federal Regulations no longer goes by the abbreviation CFR.

But with no penalty for inaction on the agencies’ part, advocates worry that plain writing has fallen to the bottom of the to-do list, like many another unfunded mandate imposed by Congress. They say many agencies have heeded the 2010 law merely by appointing officials, creating working groups and setting up Web sites.

There are examples of plain language working.

In Washington state, a revamped letter tripled the number of businesses paying a commonly ignored use tax, bringing $2 million in new revenue in a year, according to law professor Joseph Kimble, author of a forthcoming book on the benefits of plain language.

And after the Department of Veterans Affairs revised one of its letters, calls to a regional call center dropped from about 1,100 a year to about 200, Kimble said.

“People complain about government red tape and getting government out of your hair,” said Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), House sponsor of the Plain Writing Act. “If every one of these forms was written in plain language, the number of contacts to federal agencies would plummet.” 

Congress Calls for Agencies to Simplify Language

Can federal government agencies replace bureaucratic language with plain English?

They may be forced to try under legislation that is moving through Congress. The translation of documents into plain language could be a lengthy process and one that will not come easily.

In a 376-1 vote Monday, the House passed a measure (HR 3548) that would require the federal government to use plain English, understandable to ordinary Americans, in all communications that explain how to file taxes or obtain government benefits or services.

A report from Congressional Quarterly noted that the government has tried several steps over the past few decades to encourage agencies to issue documents in plain language. Former Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton all issued executive orders requiring various government documents to be written in plain English, and agencies have launched their own initiatives.

But readers trying to figure out what the bureaucrats are saying still complain about impenetrable wording. So freshman Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, is trying to goad government writers with a bill that would put the no-jargon requirement into law.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved its version of the measure (S 2291) on April 10. It was sponsored by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, D-Hawaii.

“There’s no reason why the federal government can’t write forms, letters, and other public documents in a way we can all understand,” Braley said. “It’s a simple change that’ll make a big difference for anyone who’s ever filled out a tax return, applied for a passport, received a letter from the Veterans Administration, or read a government document.”