Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Public Policy *Is* Rocket Science

Tshirt reading Rocket Science - making everything else look simple since 1958A few days ago, I tried to read the text of the so-called Zadroga Bill, which just passed today, providing health coverage for 9/11 first responders. (Its passage was directly attributable to Jon Stewart's outrage, I would argue.)

This is a relatively straight-forward bill, compared to many in Congress, yet much of it was beyond my comprehension. Written by lawyers, for lawyers, in the context of insurance companies, it made the Facebook end user license agreement (EULA) look like a first grade textbook.

Does it have to be this way?

I thought of this question again yesterday when listening to U of M law professor Prentiss Cox discuss the mortgage modification law that was passed after Obama became president. The law has helped tens of thousands save their homes from foreclosure, but it should have helped hundreds of thousands, or even a million, by now. Why not? Because it wasn't written with any enforcement provisions to make sure banks modified the loans.

How could that have happened? I can't help wondering if many who voted on it even realized the law's limitations.

What form should the language of laws and public policy take? Should it be understandable to the average citizen -- even the average college-educated citizen -- or is that too much to ask? Maybe the concepts really are too complicated, requiring the type of specialist knowledge I have always imagined possessed by veteran staffers on Capitol Hill.

In this country, with its unending pipeline of new attorneys, is it even possible to make our laws (and our EULAs) more straightforward and write them in plain English? What would a transition to plain language look like? And how many lawyers would have to be retrained for new careers?


Rocket science T-shirt from Crazy Dog T-Shirts.

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