Congress Speaks at Tenth-Grade Level; Florida Totally Average; Connie Mack Simplest Speaker in Congress

Cuttin' budgets, cuttin' syllables. (Click for larger.)
Cuttin' budgets, cuttin' syllables. (Click for larger.)
Sunlight Foundation
There has been a lot of blogspace spent on the Sunlight Foundation's latest study, which found that the speech patterns of members of Congress have gotten markedly simpler over the past 15 years or so.

"Is Congress getting dumber, or just more plainspoken?" its headline asks, and the whole country at once responded "DUMBER."

But it's easy to say "Old Senator So-and-So talks like a ninth-grader, he must be a doofus." Let's look closer, to find out who's really a doofus.

To answer the first question: No, Florida's delegation isn't catastrophically stupid, at least not by this metric. In the 112th Congress, Sunlight's data shows our politicians speak at about an 11th-grade level -- 11.3, to be exact. That doesn't sound so hot, but the best-spoken state, Maine, was at 12.76, and the worst-spoken, Montana, was at 9.5. Comparatively speaking, Florida's in the 61st percentile -- not blowing any vocabularial (?) doors off the place, but it's better than average.

The state's speaking level is lower in the 112th Congress than it is when it's calculated for each year going back to 1996, though -- over that time frame, we're at an 11.47 grade level.

But because everybody in Congress has been talking dumber lately, we actually compare worse when you take into account that higher score -- between 1996 and 2012, Florida is right in the middle -- number 25 out of 50 -- when it comes to sentence complexity.

Translation: Yeah, most states' delegations are speaking in simpler language these days. But Florida's fallen less than average.

Now, onto the juicy stats -- which of our politicians do we get to call imbeciles?

If you're basing your name-calling on this study, then the answer is Rep. Connie Mack, definitely.

Mack is unequivocally in last place in these rankings -- his speech in the 112th Congress was measured at a grade level of 6.69, the lowest level of any politician in either house. Dead last. Percentile zero.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw is next -- his 8.33 grade level is beaten by 97.5 percent of all members of the House and Senate. Sen. Marco Rubio is next-lowest in Florida, with 90.6 percent of all members speaking more complexly than he.

Rep. John Mica is the highest-ranked in Florida for the 112th Congress -- he's fourth in the whole country, speaking at a grade-14.79 level. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen did pretty well too: Her grade 13.14-level speech puts her ahead of more than 89 percent of her colleagues.

But what's it mean?

"It's hard to pinpoint the exact cause of the decline. Perhaps it reflects lawmakers speaking more in talking points, and increasingly packaging their floor speeches for YouTube," writes Sunlight's Lee Drutman. "Gone, perhaps, are the golden days when legislators spoke to persuade each other, thoughtfully wrestled with complex policy trade-offs, and regularly quoted Shakespeare."

He's right, in that Congress' speech patterns since 2005 have dropped a full grade level between 2005 and 2011 (for Republicans, it dropped more than 1.3 levels). But the data is based on punching member speeches into the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level analysis, which factors in only syllables per word and words per sentence.

Members of Congress talk more simply now, thanks largely to the influx of new Republicans. But simple doesn't mean stupid. For example, the phrase "It's OK that we don't agree. I won't call you a communist" has a grade level of 2.48. But whoever said it would look a hell of a lot smarter than most of the folks with higher scores.

You can check out individual politicians on the Sunlight Foundation's website. And here's the state-level data I cheffed up:

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