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Study ranks grade level of congressional speaking skills

Terry Coyle, CR Gazette –

Rep. Dave Loebsack and Sen. Tom Harkin may be at opposite ends of Iowa’s congressional delegation in a recent study on speaking skills, but they agree on a common bottom line: Sound bites don’t equal job performance.

A recent study by the Sunlight Foundation, an open-government advocacy group based in Washington, ranked all 535 members of Congress by the grade level of their floor speeches and any other written material they enter into the Congressional Record.

Among Iowa’s delegation, Loebsack ranked the highest; Harkin, the lowest.

The study found the average congressional speech was at a grade level of 10.6, still above the average for most Americans, which is between the eighth and ninth grade reading levels, but down from a high of 11.5 in 2005.

Harkin came in slightly lower than the current average — the study said he spoke at a grade level of 10.08, or that of a high school sophomore. Loebsack was determined to speak at a grade level of 12.24, or a senior.

The rest of the delegation: Rep. Bruce Braley, Democrat, at 12.10; Rep. Tom Latham, Republican, at 11.83; Sen. Chuck Grassley, Republican, at 11.40; Rep. Leonard Boswell, Democrat, at 10.16; and Rep. Steve King, Republican, at 10.14.

Joe Hand, a spokesman for Loebsack, said his boss likewise simply tries to keep it simple and stay focused.

“When Dave speaks on the floor, his only goal is to rise above the sound bites that the chattering class in Washington is so fond of, and clearly communicate with Iowans,” Hand told The Gazette.

Harkin’s office said he prefers to be judged on his performance, not the length of his sentences.

“Senator Harkin expects his constituents to judge him on the basis of the policies he fights for: The economy, the state of the middle class, access to quality health care and education, and his effectiveness on behalf of Iowa,” said spokeswoman Kate Cyrul Frischmann. “It has been that test — not an obscure study on sentence length — that has been the basis of his career.”

The study used a system called the Flesch-Kincaid test that basically awards higher levels to speeches with longer words and sentences. That system has been criticized by some as too rewarding of long-windedness and too unappreciative of brevity and simplicity. Sometimes, critics say, less is more.

Overall, the study found the congressmen who spoke at the highest grade levels were Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., at 16.01, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., at 14.94, Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Pa., at 14.19, Rep. Thomas Petri, R-Wis., at 14.19 and Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, at 14.18.

The bottom five were Rep. John Mulvaney, R-S.C., at 7.95, Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., at 8.02, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., at 8.04, Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., at 8.09 and Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., at 8.13.

For context, the study also reported the grade-level writing of some of the most iconic pieces of writing and speaking in American history: The Constitution (17.8), the Federalist Papers (17.1), the Declaration of Independence (15.1), the Gettysburg Address (11.2), and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (9.4).

Among other interesting findings, the study found that more moderate members of Congress tend to have higher grade-levels of their speeches, while the more extreme members generally speak at the lower levels. Also, before 2005 Republicans on average spoke at a higher grade level, but since 2005 the Democrats have generally had higher levels, according to the study.

The study is not new — the Sunlight Foundation has been doing it for years. Its author is Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation and an adjunct professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and the University of California.

Drutman told The Gazette that the last three elections have been “wave” elections that have brought large numbers of new members from either party, so Congress has seen an influx in recent years of younger, less-experienced speakers who tend to have lower grade-level scores.

Meanwhile, he said more senior members of Congress have likely been influenced by the rise of social media, such as Twitter and YouTube, in which brevity is necessary.

“It’s the rise of Congress by talking points,” Drutman said. “On one hand, it’s the dumbing-down of Congress. On the other hand, it shows Congress is becoming more plain-spoken.”

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