The U.S. Capitol in Washington. (Saul Loeb / AFP-Getty Images )
WASHINGTON -- If it sounds like the debates in Congress have devolved to that of teenagers, it’s because they have.
The level of discourse in the House and Senate has dropped a full grade level -- to the equivalent of a sophomore in high school, according to a new study.
Call this the dumbing down of Congress in a partisan age. Or a shift to plain-spoken populism ignited by the new class of tea party Republicans.
But what has become clear in the new research is that the soaring oratory that once filled the floors of the House and Senate with million-dollar diction and sophisticated syntax is making way for a more modest approach.
“Congress is changing as an institution, and what you see is more and more members gearing their speeches as sound bites or YouTube clips,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which compiled the study released Monday.
“You can harken back to a golden age of Congress when members quoted Shakespeare on the floor and really engaged in debate and talked to each other and tried to reason back and forth.”
Listening to the floor debates over the last several years, the study found that newer lawmakers tended to speak at a lower grade level than the veterans of congressional speechifying.
And political moderates among both Republicans and Democrats tended to carry on at a higher grade level than those more partisan liberals or conservatives.
With that framework in mind, it should come as no surprise that the lawmakers at the bottom of the list, speaking at the lowest grade level, are among the most ardent tea party Republicans in the freshmen class.
Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, Rep. Rob Woodall of Georgia and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky were the bottom three – speaking about an eighth-grade level, the study found.
“We look at it as a badge of honor,” said Mulvaney, a graduate of Georgetown University and the University of North Carolina Law School, who notes that he often speaks on the floor “extemporaneously.”
“It’s a conscious decision on my part. We are trying to be clear and trying to be concise,” he added, noting that he and his wife have been known to diagram sentences at the dinner table, a byproduct of schoolteacher parents.
"I can explain the difference between 'fewer' and 'less,' " Mulvaney said in a phone interview Monday between stops at a military base and a Rotary Club in South Carolina, but acknowledged that he still stumbled over the difference between “farther” and “further.”
“I don’t think people see the polysyllabic words - or the number of words - in a sentence as a sign of your intelligence,” he said.
As a case in point, he notes fellow Republican Rep. Dan Lungren of California, a seasoned politician in Sacramento and Washington who topped the list as the lawmaker with the highest level of speech – that of a senior in college.
That makes Lungren almost a throwback – on par with the Federalist Papers (a 17.1 grade level) or the U.S. Constitution (17.8 grade level). Though it is not clear his speeches are easier to understand.
“The canard that somehow we are tearing the Constitution up just does not stand any kind of inquiry whatsoever,” said Lungren during a debate over the Patriot Act during this session of Congress. “The suggestion that somehow we are invading the civil liberties of citizens is negated by the language in the three sections of the bill that we have before us.”
Californians ranked among the better spoken overall, and the No. 2 slot went to Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-East Los Angeles), at almost a 16th grade level. Her skills were on display during last week’s debate on a GOP version of the Violence Against Women Act that Democrats largely opposed.
“I cannot in good conscience vote to pass this version of VAWA, as it erases 18 years of bipartisan efforts to respond to the needs of victims of domestic violence,” she said. “I am also disappointed that, yet again, provisions to alleviate the economic factors that keep victims in abusive relationships have not been included.”
The best and worst speeches may be in the ear of the listener, and the study noted that President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address was judged by other researchers to rank at the eighth-grade level for the third year in a row.
As for those high-powered words from the Scholastic Assessment Test, memorized and recited by legions of high schoolers, they go virtually unspoken in Congress.
Of the 100 words on SAT preparation study lists, 14 are missing entirely from the Congressional Record for this Congress – notably florid, hackneyed, ostentatious and querulous.
The most used SAT word – compromise – was said the most by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, who is fond of pronouncing, “Legislation is the art of compromise.”
But in this partisan environment, as the study noted, even saying the word 142 times “does not make it so.”
[For the Record, 1:55 p.m. PST May 22: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said Lee Druthman was a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation. His name is correctly spelled Lee Drutman.]