Study: Congressional speaking levels move back a grade
May 21st, 2012
04:36 PM ET
6 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. Obama 2012 - BEND Forward America, take another 4 long years of FAILURE

    This is total drivel. Probably a 3.5 speaking level, yet very true.

    May 21, 2012 04:42 pm at 4:42 pm |
  2. cali girl

    Wow, just finding this out now?

    May 21, 2012 04:43 pm at 4:43 pm |
  3. gg

    that high i was thinking grade 2

    May 21, 2012 04:46 pm at 4:46 pm |
  4. sonny chapman

    It's starts at the top-'Dubya ?

    May 21, 2012 04:55 pm at 4:55 pm |
  5. Myviewis

    This report is a perfect example that Democrats conveniently keep crying poor, less priviledged, victims when in reality it is the Democrats that are rich, more educated, do have more college degrees, spend more years in Universities and they are the elite of our country and not Republicans. Republicans work hard and they are not the rich of this country nor the elite and most don't get to college because they are busy running some kind of business.

    May 21, 2012 04:56 pm at 4:56 pm |
  6. rla

    We keep down grading the officials we elect!

    May 21, 2012 05:02 pm at 5:02 pm |
  7. Wire Palladin, S. F.

    The president knows he has to speak at the level of elected republicans and he knows that the baggers have dumbed down the house and senate.

    May 21, 2012 05:05 pm at 5:05 pm |
  8. Tired of republican lies

    Bull puckey!!! with the GOTBP is much lower....I'd give it a kindergarten grade...because that is how they act!!!

    May 21, 2012 05:05 pm at 5:05 pm |
  9. non issue

    Views, huh? I think if you asked the 1% out there, you are going to find most of them to be GOP. You know, the richest, biggest decision makers for major corporations. Your boy Robmey is very educated, in fact has one more degree than Obama. I do know many corp CEO's who have degree after degree and all carry MBA's.

    May 21, 2012 05:06 pm at 5:06 pm |
  10. Gurgyl

    This election is Rich v/s middle class America. Obama12.

    May 21, 2012 05:14 pm at 5:14 pm |
  11. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    Palin was the beginning of the end when this woman can't make a coherent sentence. In an interview the news anchor asked Palin about something being inevitable and she replied "yes, it's edible", I swear and I'm not lying.

    May 21, 2012 05:17 pm at 5:17 pm |
  12. NeedNewGov

    And people wonder why our government gets nothing done. At least they aren't chewing tobaccy and drooling as they speak.

    May 21, 2012 05:19 pm at 5:19 pm |
  13. Rickster

    Two words(actually one name).......Hank Johnson.

    May 21, 2012 05:27 pm at 5:27 pm |
  14. Alexalex

    Im not sure which to think. Is it because anybody and their dam dog can get elected or is it so all of the newly old enough to vote can understand what they're saying after years of cuts to Education?

    May 21, 2012 05:34 pm at 5:34 pm |
  15. Myviewis

    Why is it that Republicans are accused of being the richest, biggest decision makers for major corporations and of having MBA's when it is Democrats who are more educated, have more college degrees, I think a study showed that Democrats hold the most MBA's? Aren't all these top positions at major corporations held by Democrats that hold all these college degrees????? I think that these very educated Democrats are making the big bucks not Republicans.

    May 21, 2012 05:40 pm at 5:40 pm |
  16. 1twinsfan

    Bumper sticker syntax.

    May 21, 2012 05:46 pm at 5:46 pm |
  17. The REAL Truth...

    @Myviewis – not sure what your view is... you really need to expand on them. And, so what if the Dem's turn out to be "rich, more educated, do have more college degrees, spend more years in Universities and they are the elite of our country and not Republicans."?? If so, that indicates a trend toward better education and have a better understanding of the finesse of politics. No? If not, then again, what's you point?

    May 21, 2012 05:46 pm at 5:46 pm |
  18. Obama Cares

    It's very obvious how stupid they are. Look at Beaehner, he can't make a speech without a script.

    May 21, 2012 05:48 pm at 5:48 pm |
  19. The REAL Truth...

    @Myviewis – "I think that these very educated Democrats are making the big bucks not Republicans."
    Again, I say.. so what? With folks from the right like Palin and Bachmann, it's pretty obvious that there's been a dumbing down of the right wing. Take a look at the election maps.. the large concentration of blue (Dem's) are in the population centers, whereas the red (GOP) tends to be outside. This is right up there with the less govt, 2nd AM, less taxes philosophy.

    May 21, 2012 05:49 pm at 5:49 pm |
  20. Richard "BONEHEAD" Cheney

    Who was foolish enough to pay for the study?

    May 21, 2012 05:50 pm at 5:50 pm |
  21. Larry L

    They now have the Tea Party in the House.

    May 21, 2012 05:56 pm at 5:56 pm |
  22. T'sah from Virginia

    ◄◄ On Booker: If the Democrats had the same "backbone" as the GOP as far as "sticking together" – no matter what – instead of "stabbing" each other in the back and/or "disowning the party when they feel it would benefit them” – we will be UNTOUCHABLE and UNSTOPPAPLE – The reason being, we are on the right side of history!!

    Democrats constantly "RIP at the SEAMS" and they alienate themselves from the party just a little too much and it’s “sickening” – Just like they did when they voted FOR the IRAQ war!!

    Come on now – we need to get it TOGETHER and stick TOGETHER no matter what!!!

    Obama 2012 – The Only Trusted Way Forward!!!

    May 21, 2012 05:59 pm at 5:59 pm |
  23. B.

    Not a huge revelation to most.

    May 21, 2012 06:10 pm at 6:10 pm |
  24. Myviewis

    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.

    May 21, 2012 06:11 pm at 6:11 pm |
  25. once upon a horse

    So I guess it would be fruitless for Rick Santorum to call these people "snobs", huh? But if you listen to some of these folks speak, and it's not just in Congress it is across the spectrum they appear to be not very bright. Yet they somehow get elected to these high paying offices....sound strange? You-BETCHA!

    May 21, 2012 06:21 pm at 6:21 pm |
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