Study: Congressional speaking levels move back a grade
May 21st, 2012
04:36 PM ET
3 years ago

Study: Congressional speaking levels move back a grade

Washington (CNN) – If the findings of a new study on congressional speech levels represented their actions, senators would be busy passing notes in history class, while representatives attempted to trick the substitute trigonometry teacher.

A new study by the Sunlight Foundation found that Congress speaks at an average grade level of 10.6, equivalent to a sophomore in high school. That number is down from 2005, when Congress' 11.5 speaking level was in line with a high school junior.

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Lee Drutman and his colleagues at Sunlight took every word members of Congress said on the House and Senate floors between January 1996 and April 2012 and put them through the Flesch-Kincaid test, a tool that equates higher grade levels with longer words and sentences. Drutman found that while Democrats used to speak at a lower level then Republicans, in the last seven years, that trend has flipped.

The bottom ten on the list was dominated by freshman Republicans. Of the ten, all were Republicans and eight were freshman. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a Republican freshman from South Carolina, found himself at the bottom of all 535 members of congress with a 7.9 grade level.

"We do it on purpose," Mulvaney said of himself and his other freshman Republicans. "People have been teaching this for decades. If you want someone to understand your message, you speak clearly and concisely."

Mulvaney, who graduated with honors from Georgetown University and earned a law degree at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, disagreed with the idea that the declining speech level said anything about congressional intelligence.

"I don't think anyone equates the polysyllabic nature of your words as a substitute for intellect," Mulvaney said. "Hemmingway wrote very clearly and concisely. Faulkner did not. It does not mean either was smarter than the other."

While Drutman acknowledged the numbers speak for themselves, it is clear that both Democrats and Republicans have experienced a decline in speech level.

"What you see is that both parties have dropped off," Drutman said. "It is certainly a bipartisan trend over all, Republicans have dropped a little more than Democrats but the trend is consistent across both parities."

In 2007, both Republicans and Democrats spoke at an 11.1 grade level. Since then, Republicans have fallen to a 10.4 grade level, while Democrats have fallen to a 10.8 level.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama's State of the Union addressed scored below the current congressional average. As pointed out by the University of Minnesota's Smart Politics, the president's 2012 State of the Union address earned an 8.4 grade level. This was not Obama's lowest rated speech; his 2011 State of the Union address earned an 8.1, the second lowest State of the Union address even given.

"With three addresses under his belt, President Obama has the lowest average Flesch-Kincaid score for State of the Union addresses of any modern president," read the University of Minnesota report. "Obama's average grade-level score of 8.4 is more than two grades lower than the 11.1 grade average for the other 67 addresses written by his 12 predecessors."

And while the average American speaks around an 8th or 9th grade reading level, some of history's most prominent documents were written at much higher levels. According to the Sunlight report, the Constitution was written at a 17.8 level, the Declaration of Independence at a 15.1 grade level and the Federalist Papers at a 17.1 level.

Even the notably concise Gettysburg Address clocked in at an 11.2 grade level.

Drutman said more moderate members of Congress speak at a higher grade level than more partisan Democrats and Republicans.

"Controlling for other factors, it is generally the most moderate members of both parties who speak at the highest grade levels, and the most extreme members who speak at the lowest grade levels," read the report. "This pattern is most pronounced among freshmen and sophomore members."

Not all members of Congress rated poorly, though. Rep. Dan Lungren, R-California, earned the highest overall rating with a 16.0 grade level. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, earned a 14.2 rating, the highest among senators.

Brett O'Donnell, the president of O'Donnell and Associates and a former debate coach for former Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minnesota, said that while blame for this trend could be pinned on both the politicians and the state of education in the United States, he also blamed the media.

"The media frame drives the content and the media frame helps dumb down the content," O'Donnell said. "If you are going to give the candidates only 60 seconds, it will push them to give just a sound bite."

O'Donnell said that when prepping for a debate, you have to coach the candidate to keep their answers concise and within the time guidelines. According to O'Donnell, the average amount of response time given to a candidate in 2012 was around 60 seconds. That debate brevity, he said, could have worked its way into congressional floor speeches.

"The fact that candidates get constrained … means the grade level will go down," O'Donnell said.

Drutman hypothesized similar reasons for the slipping grade levels.

"One reason perhaps you see the decline is members of Congress increasingly see their audience as YouTube," Drutman said. "They aren't quoting Shakespeare like they used to."

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Filed under: Congress • House • Senate
soundoff (42 Responses)
  1. JAZZYJAH

    I for one am not happy with Corey Booker but guess what all you Republicans, by putting this "out there" President Obama has done exactly what Gov. Romney did not want to do, put Bain front and centeer and IT WILL BE THE TOPIC of conversation now! Maybe this is what you call a "BACKFIRE." It will be interesting what Romney will have to say regarding his record at Bain and all his off-shore accounts (and there are many, about 7).

    May 21, 2012 06:36 pm at 6:36 pm |
  2. Jack

    Ah yes. Blame the media again. But if so, they cant only blame the so-called 'liberal' media. In any case, our elected officials are supposed to be held to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. Therefore ALL members of congress and our President should speak at college levels in their speeches. Thing is, those that refuse to speak any higher than jr high school level would call those that speak at college level 'elitist' as though it was a bad thing.

    May 21, 2012 06:56 pm at 6:56 pm |
  3. Mark

    What does Jonathan Lavine think about all this attention to Bain?

    May 21, 2012 07:11 pm at 7:11 pm |
  4. Seven

    If a system similiar to jury duty was instituted to identify members of congress randomly for 6 month terms I'm almost convinced that the productivity and ethics displayed may marginally improve. That's even if 30% of the random members could not read anything with more than 10 words per page and an additional 30% could not construct a coherent sentence beyond 4 words.

    On the other hand there would be an outside chance that using the a random lottery we may end up with a slight majority of people that actually posessed things like integrity, honor, and discipline which would be a drastic improvement.

    May 21, 2012 07:12 pm at 7:12 pm |
  5. gg

    keep cutting education in red states in five years they will be drawing pictures

    May 21, 2012 07:22 pm at 7:22 pm |
  6. S.S. Washington

    Does the picture make the building lean like Pisa tower? And who has the highest score this year and in history?

    May 21, 2012 07:29 pm at 7:29 pm |
  7. California Gary

    I'm amazed that some of the Tea Party crew that came in back in 2010 can even tie their own shoes, let alone understand anything above a third grade level.

    May 21, 2012 07:50 pm at 7:50 pm |
  8. Liz the First

    This is what happens when people don't really pay attention to who they're voting for. the non-presidential election years are basically ignored by the majority of voters so extremely unqualified candidates get elected with very small percentages of eligible voters actually wanting them. if we want better government, we need to remember it starts with us, being informed and involved. voting is more than a right, it's a sacred duty.

    May 21, 2012 08:10 pm at 8:10 pm |
  9. Carol

    I will not watch Corey Booker. I like Rachel but I am extremely annoyed that she is giving Booker air time. I will not watch.

    May 21, 2012 08:33 pm at 8:33 pm |
  10. Carol

    Booker needs big punishment for going "rogue". What is he looking for. Aaron Burr is he, a real turncoat.

    May 21, 2012 08:37 pm at 8:37 pm |
  11. Grow up already...

    Oh my! Looks like the Teaparty actually HAS accomplished something...

    May 21, 2012 08:52 pm at 8:52 pm |
  12. Myviewis

    @The Real Truth... – My point is that Democrats keep crying poor, less fortunate, victims and keep accusing Republicans of being the rich of this country when in reality it is Democrats that are the rich, elite of our country making the big bucks and the top jobs.

    May 21, 2012 08:59 pm at 8:59 pm |
  13. Corey

    And it all started with a Senator from Chicago who can't utter a complete sentence without reading it...

    May 21, 2012 10:34 pm at 10:34 pm |
  14. Tex71

    1. Tea Party takes over House of Representatives.
    2. Level of intelligent, articulate discourse declines.
    Anyone who is surprised by this result should give up watching Congress and stick to SpongeBob.

    May 21, 2012 11:43 pm at 11:43 pm |
  15. John

    But of course it has come down. The Tea Partiers of 2010 reduced the average intelligence and attendant educational level achieved.

    May 22, 2012 03:50 am at 3:50 am |
  16. Alcohologram

    The top 1% (people making over half a million dollars a year) are split fairly evenly between social conservative and liberal political ideologies.

    However, the top 1% also self identifies as republican twice as often as democrat (60 to 35% roughly with some margin for independents, third parties, nonpolitical).

    I hypothesize that a segment of the top 1% are socially liberal, but vote republican because it is their own financial self interest. Is voting republican in your financial self interest?

    May 22, 2012 04:05 am at 4:05 am |
  17. Church

    Myviewis, What country are you in?

    May 22, 2012 06:45 am at 6:45 am |
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