Too Long; Didn’t Read Act Aims to Cut Confusion for Entitlements Programs

Bipartisan bill would make federal agencies place instructions for applicants at top of letters and emails

Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., walks down the House steps following a vote on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., walks down the House steps following a vote on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 15, 2018 at 3:16pm

For Americans who qualify for aid through federal programs, navigating the process to unlock those benefits is often stressful and confusing.

A constituent of Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton received a piece of mail from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recently. The letter contained instructions on how to access his benefits — but they were buried at the bottom of a six-page letter mostly filled with bureaucratic balderdash. The man nearly glossed over the instructions telling him to upload his records on the VA’s website. Had he not read the letter carefully all the way through, he would have missed the most important part of the letter and possibly seen a delay receiving his VA benefits.

“We looked through other letters and found similar patterns with the lack of clarity,” a Moulton aide said.

To cut through the confusion of communications from federal agencies, an unlikely bipartisan duo in the House — Moulton, a New England Democrat, and Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina — is introducing a bill aimed at ensuring citizens don’t miss important instruction on how to collect their entitlements because it’s hidden among technical jargon.

“People seeking assistance from the government should not be tied up in bureaucracy and bogged down with confusing paperwork,” Moulton said in a statement. “It’s past time we simplify the process of dealing with federal agencies and eliminate barriers to things like VA benefits and Medicare. Government bureaucracy should not be standing in the way of people receiving their benefits.”

The Too Long;Didn’t Read Act (TL;DR Act) unveiled Thursday directs the Office of Management and Budget to require agencies to place important “action items” at the beginning of communications.

The “clearly marked” section at the top of electronic and hard-copy correspondence would include: 

  • Whether a response is required or optional
  • The action the applicant needs to take
  • The deadline for the action
  • How and where to complete the action
  • The agency’s contact information.

For example, if a home-owning survivor of Hurricane Harvey in Houston last fall wanted to apply for federally subsidized mortgage insurance through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s disaster victims program, HUD would send that survivor a letter or email with more information about the program, including the steps for how to sign up.

Under the TL;DR Act, HUD’s letter or email would list everything the applicant needs to do and when to do it by at the top of the letter or email. Everything else — the program’s background, sign-up qualifications — would follow.

“It should be a top priority,” said Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack of Iowa, an original co-sponsor of the bill. “For years folks have been bogged down by bureaucratic gibberish.”

“It is past time,” he said, “to more clearly communicate with the public.”