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S. 522: Providing Accountability Through Transparency Act of 2021


For short and understandable summaries of congressional bills, there’s GovTrack Insider. But what about for federal agency regulations?

Context

The federal government creates a lot of new rules and regulations. In 2020, a record 134 economically significant federal rules were created, defined as having an economic effect above $100 million.

These rules are usually written in “legal-ese,” not easily comprehensible to the layperson. This problem dates back to our country’s founding, as the Thomas Jefferson character rapped in Broadway’s Hamilton: “This financial plan is an outrageous demand / And it’s too many damn pages for any man to understand.”

Whether the U.S. institutes too many of these rules and regulations is a subject for another article. But as long as any federal rules and regulations are still being instituted, is there a way to make them more accessible to the average American?

What the bill does

The Providing Accountability Through Transparency Act would require that any new federal rule include a summary of 100 words or fewer, “in plain language,” posted publicly on regulations.gov. The website already exists with full text of regulations, but without these proposed summaries.

The House version was introduced on March 2 as H.R. 1507, by Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO3). The Senate version was introduced the same day as S. 522, by Sen. James Lankford (R-OK).

What supporters say

Supporters argue that people need to understand the rules that are governing them, which they often can’t with the dense and obtuse language often used.

“Oklahoma small businesses have consistently shared their frustrations with the burdensome and confusing federal regulatory processes. To give a voice to their frustrations, I have consistently pushed practical ways to make our government more accountable and transparent,” Sen. Lankford said in a press release. “[This bill] would help all Oklahomans who interact with the federal government have greater clarity and more transparency.”

What opponents say

GovTrack was unable to locate any explicit statements of opposition. However, some opponents may note the bill’s language is potentially vague and open to interpretation. What exactly constitutes “plain language”? Especially considering 8.3 percent of Americans, mostly immigrants, either don’t speak English well or at all.

Opponents may also contend that this bill is unnecessary, since the truly important thing when it comes to federal rule and regulation transparency — the actual full text of the rules and regulations themselves — are already publicly available.

And an Obama-era Executive Order 13563 also orders that, “Our regulatory system must… ensure that regulations are accessible, consistent, written in plain language, and easy to understand.” (Although, as an executive order, it’s at greater risk of rescission in an instant by a subsequent administration than a federal law would be.)

Odds of passage

Odds of passage seem reasonable. Sen. Lankford’s 2019 version passed the Senate by unanimous consent, a measure used for relatively noncontroversial legislation, though it never received a vote in the House.

The current Senate version has attracted two Democratic and two Republican cosponsors. On March 17, it passed out of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, allowing for a potential vote by the full chamber like in the previous Congress.

Odds in the House are more unclear. Rep. Luetkemeyer has introduced this bill four previous times before, but unlike in the Senate, it has never received even a committee vote, let alone a vote by the full chamber.

In addition to its Republican lead sponsor, the current House version has attracted one cosponsor, a Democrat. It awaits a potential vote in the House Judiciary Committee.

Last updated Apr 17, 2021. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Jun 21, 2021.


Providing Accountability Through Transparency Act of 2021

This bill requires the notice of a proposed rule by a federal agency to include the internet address of a summary of the rule. The summary must be 100 words or fewer, written in plain language, and posted on regulations.gov.