Average grade level of U.S. congressional speeches, 1996-2012. The Sunlight Foundation analyzed the Congressional Record and found that Congress' ranking on the Flesch-Kincaid scale — which evaluates readability — has dropped a full grade level in recent years. Sunlight Foundation analysis / Alyson Hurt / NPR

[More evidence that the U.S. has passed Peak Education.]

By Tamara Keith
21 May 2012

Members of Congress are often criticized for what they do — or rather, what they don't do.

But what about what they say and, more specifically, how they say it? It turns out that the sophistication of congressional speech-making is on the decline, according to the open government group the Sunlight Foundation. Since 2005, the average grade-level at which members of Congress speak has fallen by almost a full grade.

Every word members of Congress say on the floor of the House or Senate is documented in the Congressional Record. The Sunlight Foundation took the entire Congressional Record dating back to the 1990s and plugged it into a searchable database.

Lee Drutman, a political scientist at Sunlight, took all those speeches and ran them through an algorithm to determine the grade level of congressional discourse.

"We just kind of did it for fun, and I was kind of shocked when I plotted that data and I saw that, oh my God, there's been a real drop-off in the last several years," he says.

In 2005, Congress spoke at an 11.5 grade level on the Flesch-Kincaid scale. Now, it's 10.6. In other words, Congress dropped from talking like juniors to talking like sophomores.

Flesch-Kinkaid equates higher grade levels with longer sentences and words with more syllables.

For example, just one sentence from the member of Congress with the highest grade ranking, Rep. Dan Lungren, a Republican from California, goes on for 62 words. (That sentence: "This Justice Department, in my judgment, based on the experience I've had here in this Congress, 18 years, my years as the chief legal officer of the state of California and 35 or 40 years as a practicing attorney tells me that this administration has fundamentally failed in its obligation to attempt to faithfully carry out the laws of the United States.")

Lungren's grade level during this session of Congress: 20. Overall since 1996: 16.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Georgia Republican Rep. Rob Woodall registers the second-lowest grade level: 8.01.

An example of Woodall's speech: "What do they say about socialism, Mr. Speaker? It's a great plan until you run out of other people's money. Guess what? We've run out of other people's money. I just want to show you a chart."

That's five sentences, an average of about 7.5 words per sentence.

"My mother will probably be embarrassed to hear this news," Woodall says, "but I'm glad to know I'm not obfuscating our challenges with words that are too complicated."

Woodall is part of the large freshman class that came into Congress in 2010 — many of them backed by the Tea Party movement. Sunlight's Drutman says this infusion of new members looks to be part of the reason for the overall grade-level decline.

"Particularly among the newest members of Congress, as you move out from the center and toward either end of the political spectrum, the grade level goes down, and that pattern is particularly pronounced on the right," he says.

Of the 10 members speaking at the lowest grade level, all but two are freshmen, and every one is a Republican. […]

Sophomoric? Members Of Congress Talk Like 10th Graders, Analysis Shows

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