A new study by The Sunlight Foundation shows that Congress speaks at a lower comprehension level than it did seven years ago. The level was drawn down by a number of conservative freshman Congressmen — yeah, Tea Party guys. But even with the lower grade level influence, Congress still speaks above the head of the average American, who reads at between 8th and 9th grade level. The Congress comes in at a 10.6 grade level on average.
The Congressional record was studied and analyzed using the Flesch-Kincaid test, which measures the length of words and sentences, longer ones scoring higher. For perspective, the Constitution is written at a level of grade 17.8 and the Gettysburg Address comes in at an 11.2 grade level.
Examining the data, the Sunlight Foundation concluded that:
- “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. This pattern is most pronounced among freshmen and sophomore members.
- Prior to 2005, Republicans on average spoke at a slightly higher grade level than Democrats. Since then, Democrats have spoken on average at a slightly higher grade level than Republicans.
- Some of the decline in grade level since 2005 is because junior members speak at a lower grade level than senior members, and some of it is because senior members have simplified their speech patterns over time.
- On average, the more words individual members speak on the floors of Congress, the simpler their speech tends to be.”
The study also looked at President Obama’s State Of The Union Address for 2012 and showed that it measured at the eighth-grade level and that the President’s average grade level for SOTU addresses average an 8.4 level. Fox naturally ran with this, showing graphics of Pres. Obama in a dunce cap and the mocking of his intelligence on right-wing blogs was prolific. Though, as far as I’m concerned, if you don’t have a law degree from Harvard you have no room to criticize the man, at least on this subject.
So, is it dumbing down or is it plain talk? Well, that depends upon your point-of-view, as almost everything does. But it’s interesting that most of the top… er bottom ten Congressmen are Tea Party Conservatives. In their defense, it could be said that they are not dumbing Congress down but, rather, clearing it up. Frank Luntz, the Republican meme czar, thinks it’s the latter. Of course, he’s the guy who came up with the “death panels” so give his input as much credit as you think it merits. These 10 members of Congress were rated as speaking at a seventh to eighth-grade level, scoring between 7.95 and 8.62. Eight of them are freshman Tea Partiers. Here’s the bottom ten, you can decide for yourself:
10. Ron Johnson, R-WI: One of the Koch Brothers’ puppets, this is the guy who blamed Obama’s victory on “an ignorant electorate.” He kindly offered to “mansplain” the budget to newly elected Senator Tammy Baldwin. My goodness, Senator Johnson, if you are so smart what are you doing on this list? Tsk tsk.
9. David Schweikert, R-AZ: This Congressman was just booted from his seat on the House Financial Services committee a month ago (here’s a good one – Mulvaney replaced him!). He claimed that he was removed because he voted according to his principles which include sponsoring yet another obligatory bill on the repeal of Obamacare.
8. Tom Graves, R-GA: On his second term, he represents the third most Republican district in the nation. He’s actually the furthest to the center of this entire list, which isn’t to say that he is a centrist. He’s a “no-earmark” kinda guy… except when it comes to coal.
7. Vicky Hartzler, R-MO: A freshman who believes that climate change is “… a lie made-out by politicians and policy makers for financial gain.” That should pretty much tell us all we need to know.
6. Todd Akin, R-MO: Mr. Legitimate Rape had been a Representative from his district since 2001. He thought he could take Clair McCaskill’s Senate seat from her and he might have done it, too, if it weren’t for those outraged women.
5. Tim Griffin, R-AR: This not-quite-a-Tea-Partier voted with his party 96% of the time. All of his sponsored bills went nowhere and of the 360 bills he co-sponsored, only 19 made it into law. Griffin was involved in the watch list scandal during the summer, 2011 Congressional break, an effort to intimidate activists who would dare to attend his public town meetings.
4. Sean Duffy, R-WI: Another one-term Tea Party Representative, he voted nearly in lock step with his Tea Party comrades. At least he voted “yea” on the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act.
3. Rand Paul, R-KY: To be honest, I was surprised to see him on this list, much less this far down… er, up. Well, he does rate even further right than Mulvaney so make of that what you will. He sponsored several bills to actually dumb down Congress, like the “One Subject At A Time Act” because, hey, reading those darned bills that deal with two or three things is so taxing.
2. Rob Woodall, R-GA: A one-term Tea Partier, he is a staunch Second Amendment defender and not-so-stauch defending the Middle Class. He voted “nay” on nearly every bill that would help create jobs and anything that would help the government in any way. Good thing he’s gone.
1. Mick Mulvaney, R-SC: One of the freshman Tea Party Reps elected in 2010, he is considered a rank-and-file Republican, which should give us a good idea of how far Right that party has gone. He has sponsored several bills dealing with cutting government programs while raising defense spending. He was co-sponsor of bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act and those anti-abortion bills – all of them.
The study shows that ideology is one of the biggest factors in the grade level of communication, showing that, generally, the most conservative members of Congress rate the lowest. This could be attributed to the fact that those on the Far Right tend to have a more simple speech pattern. This might have nothing to do with their actual intelligence – as much as I disagree with Rand Paul, I find it hard to believe that he’s that dumb. Maybe he, and others, have been paying attention to his Strunk & White.
It can’t be regional, either, as three of the highest scorers come from Texas and Louisiana. The study doesn’t pretend to understand why this result came out of it, it just lays out the data. But maybe people who believe that evolution is merit-less and climate change is a myth aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer. Maybe being open to new ideas is an element of intelligence. And Tea Party Congresspeople simply aren’t built that way.
Full disclosure: This article rates a 9.23 on the Flesch–Kincaid readability test
For a complete list of Congress Critters and their grade level of speech.
T. Steelman is a life-long Liberal. She has been writing online about politics since 2007. She lives in Western Washington with her husband, daughter, 2 cats and a small herd of alpacas. How can anybody be enlightened? Truth is, after all, so poorly lit…