Are members of Congress dumbing down their discourse?
The Sunlight Foundation determined that Congress is talking at nearly a full grade level below the level at which members spoke seven years ago, according to its study of the Congressional Record—the official record of members' proceedings and speech. The foundation applied the Flesch-Kincaid grade level test to congressional conversations and found that today's Congress speaks "at about a 10.6 grade level, down from 11.5 in 2005," senior fellow Lee Drutman wrote in his analysis. Sunlight also found that the newest as well as the most conservative members of Congress on average speak at the lowest grade level.
The following is a Sunlight Foundation graphic charting the grade levels of members' speeches:
Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina scored lowest with a 7.9 grade level average for his speech. But he told Yahoo News Monday that although he doesn't believe anyone equates "sentence length" and the "polysyllabic nature of words" with intelligence, his ranking is something to be proud of.
"I see it as an affirmation that we're doing something right," Mulvaney said of his fellow bottom-tier representatives. "You've got to speak clearly and concisely," Mulvaney said, if you want people to know what you believe.
He noted that he and some of his fellow bottom-rankers, including Republican Reps. Rob Woodall of Georgia and Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, speak extemporaneously and don't use prepared notes. "This is a group of people who are trying to sound like ordinary people and not like politicians," Mulvaney said.
Ranking one step above Mulvaney was Woodall, then Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Duffy and in fifth place, Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri—all Republicans.
Leading the list as the most advanced speaker is Republican Rep. Dan Lungren of California, who speaks like a college senior. He is followed by Democratic Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard of California, Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania and Republican Rep. Tom Petri of Wisconsin. (A complete ranking of members can be found here.)
So how to explain both the overall drop in grade level average and the conservative-heavy bottom tier?
Drutman emphasized in an interview with Yahoo News that the exact cause is difficult to determine, but the foundation's report concludes that an influx of new members is dragging down the grade level average for Congress overall. But Drutman said the results are neither good nor bad, in his opinion.
"On one hand, you might be concerned that members are speaking at a lower level," Drutman said. But he added on the other, "You might see it as just members speaking more directly to their constituents and being more accessible and plain-spoken."
Drutman noted that many public speakers, writers and others are educated on how to speak and write in simple terms to reach the widest audience.
Drutman said the shift "reflects some of the ways the institution has changed" and said the study was conducted in the "spirit of fun" and was not intended to "pass judgement."
It should be noted that the Congressional Record can be amended by members, meaning they can insert speeches they never actually issued and modify those they did issue. Drutman said he has no data to base a guess on how that may shape the grade level results overall.
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