Is Congress getting dumber?
Probably not. But a new analysis by the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation seems to reveal that Congress is, at least, speaking dumber -- at a little over a 10th-grade level and a full grade below the level it was speaking at in 2005. But as the Sunlight Foundation’s Lee Drutman, one of the study authors, explains, it’s easy for those frustrated with congressional ineptitude and inaction to interpret the findings of the study as indicating an increase in congressional stupidity.
“The idea that Congress is dumbing down resonates with a lot of people because they don’t hold Congress in particularly high regard, because Congress has proven time and time again that they can’t solve pressing problems,” he said.
(PICTURES: At What Grade Level Do Members Speak?)
Most ineffective Congress in history or not, the drop in grade level of congressional floor speeches may actually indicate that Congress is working better for constituents. Brevity and simplicity of speech may be the new normal for Congress, in part, because it makes good business sense.
C-SPAN began televising House proceedings to Americans in March 1979; more than seven years later, it began broadcasts from the Senate. While it’s true that tuning in to C-SPAN usually yields parliamentary procedure given in a monotone or wonky votes backed by classical music, the live broadcasts have had the effect of making lawmakers aware that they could, at any given time, be watched by their constituents.
That, coupled with the proliferation of the 24-hour news cycle and one-click sharing on the Web, means someone is likely to be listening at all times. Drutman points out that the decline in grade-level began around 2006, right around the time that YouTube took off and Twitter began.
“I think more and more we live in a YouTube culture, in which members of Congress speak less and less to each other and more and more to wind up in clips on TV or in YouTube,” he said.
And while lawmakers aren’t guaranteed to have their best and brightest moments aired on the Sunday shows or cable news, it remains generally true in Washington that all publicity is good publicity. Lawmakers who have mastered the art of brevity are best-suited for those 20-second sound bites that open and close the latest episode of Morning Joe or Fox News Sunday.
Simpler speech works on television and with constituents back at home. Brad Fitch, director of the Congressional Management Foundation and a former communications professor, says the foundation spends much time teaching lawmakers to create a connection with constituents, which involves giving floor speeches intended for a wide range of uses.
“In today’s congressional environment, where a significant amount of content is repurposed, the floor speech is often a fundamental building block of the press release, which is a building block of the constituent communication, so each speech is going to see a lot of different lives,” Fitch said.
The data doesn’t necessarily bear this out; the Sunlight Foundation study found no correlation between socioeconomic status or high school graduation rates in a lawmaker’s district, on the one hand, and grade level. But the widespread, quick-share nature of the Internet and the continuous news cycle means Congress is not just communicating with constituents, but also with advocacy organizations, think tanks, lobbying firms and journalists across Washington. Oftentimes, the simplest speech is also the best way to communicate to the widest swath of people.
Lawmakers are well aware that what they say in the chambers of Congress echoes widely beyond its walls.
“I’m not talking to the two or three people who are sitting in a chamber, I’m talking to the million and a half, 2 million people who are listening” to his floor speeches, said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., one of the longest-serving members in the list of the bottom 20 speakers. Bartlett, who taught for more than 20 years and was trained initially to become a minister, says he does make a conscious effort “to not use words that will cause people to have to divert themselves from following me,” to ensure that his speeches are easily understood by all those listening.
Bartlett is somewhat of an anomaly – the Sunlight study found a correlation between complexity of speech and time spent in Congress. The longer a lawmaker has served, the higher the grade level at which he or she is likely to speak, perhaps a reflection of holdovers from the Senate and House who prefer to stick to the way things were, back when former Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., could orate for upwards of thirty minutes and few would bat an eye.
Freshmen are more likely to speak at a lower grade level, and those at the extremes of their party also speak at a lower grade level than the more moderate members. Republicans see a drop of three grade levels from their most moderate to their most conservative, and while the study didn’t find a clear correlation between grade level and ideology, with all other factors held constant, scoring on the far left is associated with lower grade levels.
But don’t call it stupidity.
Both Fitch and Drutman were quick to point out that level of discourse doesn’t necessarily correlate with a level of intelligence.
“Speaking in plain language does not in any way connote intelligence or non-intelligence,” Fitch emphasized.
And Drutman offered an alternate explanation for why more-partisan lawmakers may speak at a lower grade level: “Perhaps people on both sides of the spectrum have a more crystallized view of how things are,” he said.
Ideology may have some influence, however. Eight members of the Tea Party Caucus make the bottom 20, including the lawmaker who speaks at the lowest grade level at 7.95, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C. But the simplified speech of those members may indicate less a lack of nuance and more of an effort to bring government back to the people, fueled by the populist wave that has pushed grassroots groups like the tea party and the Occupy movement to the forefront of the national political debate.
“I don’t want to sound like a politician. I try hard not to sound like a politician,” Mulvaney says.
What does a politician sound like? According to Mulvaney, “Politicians are famous for using a lot of words and saying nothing.”
And when congressional discourse devolves to that level, even while it may seem smarter by the Flesch-Kincaid scale of measurement, which was used in the Sunlight study, meaning is lost for lawmakers and constituents alike.
However, Fitch says that there’s a time and a place for a high level of complexity.
“Sometimes that Washington language is valuable,” he says, referring to the wonky acronyms and legalese that often pepper the more in-depth policy discussions during committee meetings.
“I sleep better at night knowing there are policy wonks in the U.S. Congress,” Fitch adds.
Those policy wonks, though, may do well to learn to translate wonkspeak into something average Americans can understand. If it’s true that Americans are reading, on average, at an 8th- or 9th-grade level, there is, even now, a clear disconnect between what some lawmakers say and what their constituents can understand.