Grade level of congressional speech falls

May 21, 2012|By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

A study suggesting that the sophistication of congressional floor speeches has declined by a full grade level since 2005 ranks Reps. Chris Van Hollen and John Sarbanes as the most eloquent -- or verbose, depending on perspective -- members of Maryland’s delegation to Washington.

Van Hollen's speeches on the floor of the House of Representatives have been delivered at a 12.6 grade level during the course of his five terms, according to a Sunlight Foundation report released Monday. Sarbanes came in only slightly lower. Rounding out the bottom of the delegation: Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, who speaks on the floor at an 8.9 grade level and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, whose speeches are delivered at the 9.8 grade level, according to the report.

The group analyzed 15 years' worth of congressional floor speeches using the Flesch-Kincaid test, which bases its score on the number of words used in each sentence and the number of syllables in each word. It's far from a perfect measure: Superfluous speech and run-on sentences, for instance, can increase scores.

On average, congressional lawmakers speak at about a 10.6 grade level, down from a high of 11.5 in 2006, according to the Sunlight analysis of the Congressional Record. The test measures the U.S. Constitution at a 17.8 grade level and the Federalist Papers at a 17.1 grade level, according to the group. This blog item is written at a 12.3 grade level under the formula.

Sunlight's analysis also ranks the most-widely used words on the floor by every member of Congress. Aside from place names ("Maryland," "Baltimore," etc.), "Ripken" and "Orioles" rank high for Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, for instance, along with "NSA" and "intelligence." For Rep. Elijah E. Cummings "outlays," "African," "black," "disparities," and "HIV," were among his most used words. For Rep. Andy Harris, top words included "EERE," which stands for "energy efficiency and renewable energy," as well as "windmills."

Van Hollen, Sarbanes, Mikulski, Ruppersberger and Cummings are Democrats. Bartlett and Harris are Republicans.

A searchable database of the most used words and the lawmakers who speak them is available here

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