WASHINGTON – Some congressmen and senators don’t speak good…er, well.
At least that’s what one unofficial report states.
Members of the 112th Congress speak at a full grade level lower than lawmakers did a decade ago, according to a recent study from the Sunlight Foundation. The analysis uses the Flesch-Kincaid test, which measures the length of sentences and the complexity of words in a given text, in this case the speeches in the Congressional Record. That test is a commonly used tool for determining the validity of textbooks.
In 2005, Congress spoke at an 11.5 grade level, according to the study. That compares to the Constitution, written at a 17.8 grade level, the Federalist Papers at 17.1 and the Declaration of Independence at 15.1.
Today, Congress speaks like 10th-graders. (Disclosure: Most newspapers are written between an 11th- and 14th-grade level, the foundation says.)
This doesn’t necessarily relate directly to a drop in intelligence, since the study itself does not take the quality of the speaking level into account. It also might correspond to communicating with the average American, who reads between an eighth- and ninth-grade level.
What can be measured is the shift in demographics. Republicans on average were graded higher in 1996, fell to about even with Democrats in 2001 and again in 2006, and now are almost a half-level lower than Democrats with a 10.4 level.
The top four congressmen all represent suburbs of D.C. and Baltimore, known for having better educated populations. (Montgomery, Fairfax and Howard counties all have rates higher than 57 percent of higher education degrees, according to Census statistics.) This includes Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., at the top of the list and 14th nationwide. Connolly, known by his staff as a voracious reader, holds a masters from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Last on this list and fifth-lowest nationally is Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., who, along with most of the others toward the end — such as House Speaker Steny Hoyer, D- Md. — represents a rural district.
Bartlett, however, holds a master’s degree and a doctorate in human physiology. He taught medicine for two decades at Loma Linda University in California and at the Howard University School of Medicine.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., ranks near the top, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., lands near the bottom, though both are considered by their congressional colleagues to be savvy, well-informed public servants.
One expert believes these factors might have nothing to do with it.
“Politicians today are looking to be quoted, so they want to be pithy, brief and simple,” says Christopher Deering, professor of political science at George Washington University.
(Note: Deering, who began his interview with this reporter with a long erudition on the merits of the Flesch-Kincaid test and how it relates to American public rhetoric, accurately predicted the quotation this reporter would use to lead off his remarks.)
“It’s pretty obvious, anecdotally, the people that were quoted were not dumb people,” he says.
Deering points to a gradual decline in the complexity of language in the U.S. political sphere, starting with the Constitution and sloping past President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettsyburg Address. That is perhaps the best political speech ever given, Deering says, but comes in at a much simpler grade level.
The Sunlight study might not accurately portray the intelligence of members of Congress and their geography, but the consistency of the test over decades is an indicator of some sort of shift.
“There are lots of variables here beyond a simplistic rural versus urban,” Deering says. “Our rhetoric is a function of a lot of things.”