FOR ALL IN THIS town whose native tongue is Gobbledygook, it goes without saying that incomprehensibility has been the watchword on the upward swing of the bureaucratic career orientation, notwithstanding prior implementation of discernibility, right? But now comes word--or verbiage, really--from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announcing that it (make that read, the taxpayer) is paying a local research institute $23,008 to come up with a readable letter asking people to return defective cars for repairs.

But when Rep. John Bryant of Texas read about this, he didn't understand it at all. "I just don't understand why a federal agency like yours has to find a consultant to write a clear letter. Why can't you write it yourself?" Herewith, enclosed and all that, the reply from an agency official: "I am not skilled in linguistics."

"Well," said Mr. Bryant, "it's my recommendation that you ought to learn how to write and read a letter, or find a different line of business."

We called up the agency (no point in writing), and learned that there is yet another obfuscation factor: lawyers. It is attorneys for the auto manufacturers, another NHTSA official says, who actually draft the recall letters (there are 150 to 300 recall campaigns a year, they say). They won't accept something clear and to the point, such as perhaps, "Bring back your car or die." Hence, the turgid prose and poor public response, which drew a General Accounting Office recommendation for a better letter.

But why can't Uncle Sam read and write? Is there no one in all of government who can tat up a little draft, so NHTSA wouldn't have to send out for help? At $23,008 a letter on the private market, it won't be too long before we're all at a loss for words.