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National Partnership for Reinventing Government

Plain Language

Do you have a question for Uncle Sam? Ask away.





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Dear Uncle Sam

Question: Uncle Sam, sometimes you talk a little funny. Once I heard that you had hexiform rotatable surface compression units? What are those?

Answer: Let's see, the answer to this could be a little complicated. The diagram below explains it best.

Nut and Bolt

On June 1, 1998, President Clinton signed a memo telling all government employees to start using plain language that people can understand. So, I can't have hexiform rotatable surface compression units anymore, only nuts, and any big organization has a few of those (ed. note - speak for yourself "Uncle Sam").

Question: Uncle Sam, I heard that the Federal government eliminated 640,000 pages of internal regulations and another 16,000 pages of regulations affecting businesses and the public. I'm doing a science project, and I'd like to know how much these regulations weighed.

Answer: Well, let's see. Those 656,000 pages of regulations used about 328,000 sheets of paper. There are 200,000 sheets of standard U.S. office paper in a ton. So, the eliminated regulations weighed about 1.64 tons.

Question: Uncle Sam, where did the phrase "red tape" come from?

Answer: In the time of the Civil War, the Federal government folded long, bulky documents into three sections and then bound them together with narrow red ribbon. To free the documents, the reader first had to spend time cutting and removing the red ribbon. As the words "tape" and "ribbon" were used interchangeably in the 1800's, this process was known as cutting "red tape". The term, "red tape" has lived on to describe any time-consuming, seemingly unnecessary bureaucratic requirement that delays getting the job done, i.e., reading the documents.

Question: Uncle Sam, I understand that reinvention is saving lots taxpayers' money. So, where’s the money going, and how is it being used?

Answer: Actually, we have two kinds of savings. First, some of our improvements help us plan better, so we can budget the anticipated savings for new projects or programs. That way, in planning the budget, the money can go to the agencies that need it most. Second, unexpected savings, or budget surpluses, go back to the U.S. Treasury. This money then goes to pay down the national debt. Six years ago, our national debt had grown to a whopping 50 percent of our annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Now, it is down to nearly 40 percent of our GDP and falling. Reducing our national debt means lower Federal interest costs in the future, lower interest rates, and more prosperity for all Americans.

Question: Uncle Sam, where did you get your name?

Answer: No one is certain, but the most popular theory is that my name came from Sam Wilson, a meat packer in Troy, New York. During the war of 1812, each barrel of meat he prepared for the U. S. Army was stamped US. Supposedly, the soldiers he supplied came to call Sam Wilson "Uncle Sam." Over time, "Uncle Sam" became synonymous with the U.S.A. My best known picture appeared on a U. S. Army recruiting poster created by James Montgomery Flagg in 1916. A slightly altered version of that poster is at the top of this article.

Send a question to Uncle Sam

(Unfortunately Uncle Sam is a rather busy fellow and can't answer every question that he might get, however, he will answer some of them directly, others will be answered in the next issue of REGO.)


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