Language study ranks Congress' members
BY JORDAN BLUM
Advocate Washington bureau
May 22, 2012
WASHINGTON – The political discourse in Washington, D.C., is either becoming dumber or more terse and to the point, according to a report released Monday by the Sunlight Foundation.
The study showed that members of Congress speak at a full academic grade lower than they did just seven years ago, dipping from an 11.5 level in 2005, which is the equivalent of a high school junior, to a 10.6 grade level now.
The Louisiana delegation ranged all over with Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, leading the way for the state delegation with the eighth-best speaking level out of 531 members of Congress at a 13.94 grade level.
Reps. Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia, and Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, scored the lowest in Louisiana. Landry came in 13th lowest in Congress with an 8.64 grade level and Cassidy was 35th lowest at a 9.38 grade level, according the Sunlight Foundation.
Those who ranked low were essentially scored that way for speaking in shorter sentences without a lot of big words.
The average American speaks between the eighth- and ninth-grade levels, the report says.
The study took the transcripts of the congressional record of everything said on the House and Senate floors and then ran the records through the Flesch-Kincaid readability tests that look at vocabulary selections and sentence structures.
That essentially means a congressman is punished for speaking in short, easy-to-understand sentences, while a more loquacious congressman who uses more multisyllabic words is rewarded.
The second half of the report’s headline suggests the same, “Is Congress getting dumber, or just more plainspoken?”
The report also notes, “Of course, what some might interpret as a dumbing down of Congress, others will see as more effective communications.”
In fact, Louisiana has one of the more-educated congressional delegations. All nine of them are college graduates, including three doctors, two lawyers and a Rhodes Scholar.
Landry is a lawyer and Cassidy is a physician. Neither responded to requests for comment.
Alexander was the least-educated member of the delegation until he received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Louisiana at Monroe in 2009.
“We’ll take it,” Alexander said Monday after learning of the recognition.
“I try not to say anything unless I have something to say,” Alexander said, arguing that too many people speak up just for the sake of opening their mouths.
When he completed his degree in 2009, Alexander noted that his French class was his hardest. “It’s hard enough for me to speak English,” he joked at the time.
But Alexander on Monday said it is “disturbing” that the quality of discourse is dipping. Looking at the bigger picture, Alexander said he fears it will only get worse because the younger generations are more focused on texting each other than in engaging in good conversation and debate.
“I think we’re losing that and it’s sad,” Alexander said.
As for the rest of the Louisiana delegation, Sens. David Vitter, R-La., scored at an 11.4 grade level; and Mary Landrieu, D-La., was 10.84. Reps. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, scored 10.83; Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, 10.5; and John Fleming, R-Minden, 10.0.
By comparison, according to the report, the U.S. Constitution is written at a 17.8-grade level, the Federalist Papers at a 17.1-level and the Declaration of Independence at a 15.1-level.
The Gettysburg Address comes in at an 11.2-grade level and The Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is at a 9.4 level.
President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speeches averaged at an 8.4 grade level.
Focusing on government transparency, The Sunlight Foundation is a Washington, D.C., nonprofit group funded by grants from foundations.