Is Congress ‘Dumbing Down,’ or Becoming More Plainspoken?

by Categorized: Data, Politics Date:

Ever wonder which members of Congress are most inclined to engage in sesquipedalian loquaciousness?

To find out, the Sunlight Foundation has put together a fascinating analysis of the Congressional Record, running politicians’ speeches through the Flesch-Kincaid test, an algorithm that measures the length of words and sentences and calculates the grade level at which a passage was written.

For example the first paragraph of this post – with its use of a term meaning to speak with words a foot and a half long – would be comprehensible, according the test, by someone with 13.4 years of schooling. The second paragraph, without the fancy words but a whopping 44 words long, has a grade level of 21.4, according to Flesch-Kincaid.

For better or worse, no member of Congress hit that level. According to the Sunlight Foundation’s analysis, the 112th Congress collectively spoke at a 10.6 grade level — think midway through high school. That’s down nearly a full grade level since 2005, which the foundation says could indicate that Congress is “dumbing down” or could indicate an effort simply to be more plainspoken.

The analysis found that the most moderate members of both political parties tended to speak at the highest grade levels, while more extreme politicians, particularly those on the right, tended to speak at the lowest levels. Prior to 2005, Republicans spoke at a slightly higher grade level than Democrats, but that has since reversed. But hold off on the partisan flames; earlier this year, an analysis found that President Obama’s State of the Union addresses have typically been written at about an 8th grade level.

The most advanced speaker by far was Rep. Dan Lungren, a California Republican whose words registered at a 20.5 grade level — more than four years past a college degree. (The second-highest member of Congress was nearly five grade levels lower.) At the bottom of the pack was Rep. Connie Mack, a Florida Republican, who spoke at a grade level of 6.7.

So how did Connecticut’s delegation fare? All were above average, with Sen. Joseph Lieberman scoring the highest, at a grade level of  13.0. That put him in the top 10 percent. Next highest was Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who spoke at a 12.6 grade level. The rundown for members of the House: Joe Courtney, 12.5; Rosa DeLauro, 11.5; Chris Murphy, 11.4; John Larson, 10.8; Jim Himes, 10.7.

For comparison’s sake, the foundation notes that the U.S. Constitution was written at a 17.8 grade level, and the Gettysburg Address comes in at 11.2 At the other end of the spectrum, Dr. Suess’s Green Eggs and Ham, entirely monosyllabic but for eight instances of the word “anywhere,” generates a grade level of -1.3.

Use the spreadsheet below to see how any member of Congress scored, both for the 112th Congress and since 2005. The columns can also be sorted and filtered.

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