The way members of Congress speak in the official record has gotten significantly simpler according to a new analysis by the Sun Light Foundation.
Today’s Congress collectively speaks at a 10.6 grade level, down from 11.5 in 2005. By comparison, the U.S. Constitution is written at a 17.8 grade level and the Declaration of Independence at a 15.1 grade level. The Gettysburg Address comes in at an 11.2 grade level and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is at a 9.4 grade level. All these analyses use the Flesch-Kincaid test, which equates higher grade levels with longer words and longer sentences.
In looking at the data more closely, a few other important patterns jump out:
- Controlling for other factors, it is generally the most moderate members of both parties who speak at the highest grade levels, and the most extreme members who speak at the lowest grade levels. This pattern is most pronounced among freshmen and sophomore members.
- Prior to 2005, Republicans on average spoke at a slightly higher grade level than Democrats. Since then, Democrats have spoken on average at a slightly higher grade level than Republicans.
- Some of the decline in grade level since 2005 is because junior members speak at a lower grade level than senior members, and some of it is because senior members have simplified their speech patterns over time.
- On average, the more words individual members speak on the floors of Congress, the simpler their speech tends to be.
While it is possible the Congress really is getting dumber, it is more likely this drop in grade level is a result of the changing way in which people use their floor speeches. In the past, those floor speeches were mainly directed at other members of Congress, lobbyists, donors and select people in the know. More recently, thanks to the internet, members of Congress are using their time on the floor as part of an outreach directly to regular people. It is now not uncommon for floor speeches to become videos and go viral, making certain members mini-celebrities.
Personally I think members of Congress moving away from trying to deliver the most flowery, over the top oration possible is a no great loss.