Dumb Congress – or dumb study?

When he speaks on the floor of the House of Representatives, Rep. Mick Mulvaney talks at just below an eighth-grade level, lower than any of his 534 congressional peers.

Rep. Dan Lungren, by contrast, has spoken this congressional term at a “20th grade” level, the highest level in Congress and roughly like a Ph.D. candidate defending a dissertation.

Does that make Lungren brilliant and Mulvaney dumb?

Mulvaney, a freshman Republican from South Carolina, laughs at the suggestion.

“Folks back home think I’m an effective speaker and an effective writer,” Mulvaney told McClatchy. “I try to write and speak in a conversational style. I have people thank me every week for at least making an effort to explain complex things in a comprehensible fashion.”

A new study by Sunlight Foundation, a Washington group that pushes for government transparency, is subjecting Mulvaney and other lawmakers who scored at low grade levels to kidding from their peers and ridicule in other quarters. The study took lawmakers’ floor speeches since 1996, as published in the Congressional Record, and ran them through the Flesch-Kincaid test, which links longer sentences and more complex words with higher grade levels.

Mulvaney’s thoughts on that method can be summed up with a simple word: hogwash.

“I don’t think anyone seriously equates sentence length with intellect,” Mulvaney said. “If that was the case, then the kids who write run-on sentences would be the smartest kids in school. In fact, you could make a strong argument that it’s much more difficult to speak clearly and concisely then it is to just ramble aimlessly.”

Lungren, a ninth-term Republican from Long Beach, Calif., isn’t apologizing for his ranking as the most erudite-sounding pol in Washington, however.

“It was kind of flattering to see that,” he told McClatchy. “I very much am a student of the spoken word. I started as a debater and a competitive speaker in high school. I had outstanding teachers who challenged us to try to learn to communicate and to use the right words. As a legislator, I’ve tried to ensure that we pay attention to the words we put in statute.”

The perspectives of Lungren and Mulvaney illustrate the current political divide within the Republican Party.

Mulvaney is among the 87 House Republicans elected to Congress in 2010 for the first time, many of them on the wings of plain-spoken, tea party-inspired campaigns.

In the Sunlight Foundation study, all but three of the 25 lawmakers with the lowest grade levels of speech are Republicans, and 13 of those 22 Republicans are freshmen. Among the 25 with the highest grade levels, 14 are Republicans, but only two – Reps. Rodney Alexander of Louisiana and Mark Amodei of Nevada – are in their first terms.

Mulvaney gently mocked a 62-word sentence from a recent Lungren floor speech that Mulvaney read online:

“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.”

That’s the kind of talk, Mulvaney says, that he and his fellow freshman rabble-rousers campaigned against.

“I love Dan, but he sounds like every other politician for the last 20 years,” Mulvaney said. “We’re trying hard not to sound like politicians.”

Lungren and Mulvaney have similarly impressive education credentials: The Californian has an English honors bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame University and a law degree from Georgetown University; the South Carolinian has an international economics honors bachelor’s degree from Georgetown and a law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The Sunlight Foundation ran some cornerstone U.S. political speeches and documents through the same test. The Constitution came in at grade 17.8, about the level of a master’s degree student. The Declaration of Independence hit 15th grade, akin to a college junior. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address scored at the 11th-grade level. The Rev. Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech reached the ninth grade.

The average member of Congress speaks at a 10.6 grade level, down from 11.5 in 2005. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address to Congress in January clocked in at an 8.4 grade level. That’s almost exactly the 8.5 grade level at which the typical American speaks.

David Perlmutter, a political communications professor at the University of Iowa, found the Sunlight Foundation study to be – well, pretty sophomoric. He noted that Ernest Hemingway wrote short sentences with simple words and William Faulkner employed long sentences with complex words, yet both are considered great writers.

“I don’t buy the method, I don’t buy the conclusions and I don’t buy some of the analysis,” Perlmutter said. “We’ve all met idiots who have Ph.D.s and people who never went to college but are brilliant.”

Lee Drutman, a political scientist at the Sunlight Foundation who oversaw the study, doesn’t disagree.

“What some will interpret as the dumbing-down of Congress, others will see as more effective communications,” Drutman said.

That’s all well and good. But some members of Congress who were pegged as speaking at relatively low grade levels weren’t pleased.

Brenda Jones is an aide to Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and former civil rights leader with a long-standing reputation as an eloquent speaker. She took issue with the study’s findings that he’s spoken at less than a ninth-grade level since 1996, the 17th-lowest in Congress.

Jones noted that Lewis has received five honorary degrees from prominent universities in the past two months, including Harvard and Brown.

“Certainly these esteemed institutions of higher learning see no paucity in his ability to speak, to take action or inspire,” Jones said.

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