Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images.
A new study suggests that Congress's level of discourse has dropped roughly one grade level since 1995, a finding that has prompted many to draw obvious parallels between what's perceived to be the legislature's increasingly partisan polarization and a playground fight.
But don't expect to hear House Speaker John Boehner huff "No you shut up" to House Democrats anytime soon: the average grade level of congressional speech is the equivalent of a high school sophomore, down nine-tenths of a grade level since 2005 but still significantly above the 8th and 9th grade levels that Americans speak at on average.
The study comes from the Sunlight Foundation, which put every word uttered publicly by lawmakers on the House and Senate floors between 1996 and 2012 through the Flesch-Kincaid test. While the test is far from unassailable, it's commonly used to provide a general grade-level rating for speeches and writing. In short, writing and speeches that use sentences with lots of words and words with lots of syllables earn a higher rating than those that opt for short, punchy prose. (Over on Brow Beat, David Haglund explains why we shouldn't put much stock in the grade-level analyses.)
The Sunlight researchers found that moderates and long-time members of Congress tended to earn the highest marks of the bunch. The bottom 10 on the list were all Republicans, eight of whom were in their first terms. That aligns with the more broad results of the analysis, which found that members of Congress who veered to the farther ends of the political spectrum generally tended to speak at a lower grade level that their more moderate colleagues.
CNN spoke with the man at the bottom of the class, freshman Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who earned a a 7.9 grade level rating for his House speeches. The way the South Carolina Republican sees it, the lower grade level indicates an intentional plainspoken style rather than a dumbing down of Congress. "People have been teaching this for decades," he said. "If you want someone to understand your message, you speak clearly and concisely."
While the GOP may have dominated the bottom of the list, they also filled out the bulk of the top as well. No. 1? California Republican Dan Lungren, who posted the high score of 16.01, or a grade level of a college senior. He was followed by fellow California Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a Democrat, who spoke at about the level of a college junior. Roybal-Allard was one of only two Democrats to place in the top or bottom 10.
The Washington Post offers some historical grade-level comparisons: "The U.S. Constitution, for example, ranks at a 17.8 grade level; the Declaration of Independence earns a 15.1 grade level; the Gettsyburg Address comes in at 11.2; and Martin Luther King Jr.’s 'I Have a Dream' speech weighs in at a 9.4 grade level."