The D.C. City Council, which heretofore has expended excessive verbiage in drafting its legislation, was advised this week to cut its bills short and write them clearly.
Gone, if the council accepts the advice offered by its legislative counsel's office, will be such words as "heretofore," "expend" and "excessive." Replacing them will be "before," "spend" and "too much" or "too many."
The recommendation was included in an 84-page "legislative drafting manual," the first handbook of its kind since the council got broad lawmaking power under the city's Home Rule Charter in 1975.
It suggests standard formats and lays down what its authors described as common-sense rules for the use of language. For example, "Do not give a word a meaning which is inconsistent with its ordinary usage."
"Make short statements... use active rather than passive voice... use present tense... avoid: unnecessary modifiers, unnecessary definitions, unnecessary references, long and unfamiliar words, legalistic expressions, and circumlocutions," the manual advises.
Submitted last week, the proposal drew cheers from several council members. Action on its adoption was delayed so council members could add their own suggestions.
"I'm not down on lawyers," John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2) declared, "but these guys create a whole language for themselves so we have to pay them to interpret it."
John L. Ray (D-At Large), a lawyer, said he agreed with the suggested rules "as a general proposition, although I wouldn't take it to an extreme -- obviously, technical legislation has to be technical."
Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), a former English teacher, said similar rules should be applied to city government reports. She said she spent a weekend reading a report submitted by a citizens' gambling commission created by the council, and found many errors in the punctuation, capitalization and syntax.
The legislative counsel, whose office produced the proposed manual, is responsible for seeing that bills considered by the council are legally proper. The office is not responsible for the actual content of the bills.
Sylvia Edwards, the legislative counsel, said work on the manual was begun by her predecessor, Marsha Echols, under the direction of former Council Chairman Sterling Tucker. Help was provided by the Georgetown University Law Center, which researched the ways various states prepare their laws.
The manual, in a section devoted to the legal basis of the council's lawmaking powers, noted one quirk: "The term 'Act' (with a capital A) means an Act of Congress.... The term 'act' (with a small a) means an act of the Council."
In urging short sentences, the manual uses the language of an insurance policy to demonstrate good and bad legal language. Here is the example:
"DON'T SAY: Notice to any agent or knowledge possessed by any other person shall not effect a waiver or a change in any part of this policy or estop the Company from asserting any right under the terms of this policy, nor shall the terms of this policy be waived or changed, except by endorsement issued to form a part of this policy.
"SAY: No change in this policy may be made except by us in writing."