The non-partisan Sunlight Foundation recently released a great study that examines the words and syntax used by members of Congress in their addresses and speeches. Specifically, these are their official comments as found in the Congressional Record–the official account of the proceedings on Congress. What they found is that current Congress speaks at a 10.6 grade level, down from 11.5 in 2005.
Put this in comparison. The average American reads between an 8th and 9th grade level. Television news is generally at about a 9th or 10 grade level. The King James Bible at 11.0 level, the U.S. Constitution at 17.8, and To Kill a Mockingbird at a 6.0 level. The New York Times is 14 and the Wall Street Journal is at 11.
Historically (1996-2005) Republicans spoke two-tenths of a grade higher than Democrats but the diction of both parties has declined in the last few years with Republicans moving from a 11.6 grade level to a 10.3 grade level and Democrats sliding from 11.4 to 10.6 in 2011.
Perhaps members of Congress are not dumber than before. Maybe the shift in language reflects better communication skills and efforts to use words that their audience will understand. But remember this study does not look at speeches to the public where presumably members of Congress may be speaking to a wide ranging audience of adults and children. Instead they are speaking to one another dumbing down their language to communicate to their peers.
Maybe there is no correlation between language and intelligence. Although research tells us the contrary, and the entire standardized testing industry that includes the SATs would beg to differ. However, looking at the current Congress, it does not appear that there are too many Einsteins there, and instead, given some of the ideas and proposals being cooked up, it increasingly seems more populated by Forrest Gumps.
So how does the Minnesota congressional delegation pan out?
Overall, Minnesota’s delegation speaks at a 10.6 grade-level. In very Lake Wobegonism fashion, we are average for Congress. Representative Ellison comes in at the bottom at a 9.3 grade-level, closely followed by Bachmann at 9.5. They are overall 25th and 44th in Congress (out of 535 members). Both place in the bottom 10th percentile. Conversely, Representative McCollum is at 12.7, ranked 470, locating her near the 90th percentile. Minnesota Democrats came in at 10.45, Republicans at 10.9.
What does all this mean? Perhaps nothing, or perhaps it is indicative of something broader about who is serving in Congress and their intelligence and capacity to address the major problems of the day. You decide whether this tells us if Congress is getting dumb and dumber?
Many years ago when Fritz Hollings was running for re-election to the Senate in South Carolina his opponent took a drug test, released the results, and called up the senator to take a drug test and also release the results. Senator Hollings responded: “I will take a drug test and release the results when my opponent takes an IQ test and releases the results.” I support this idea–individuals running for Congress should be required to disclose their IQ score.