Posts Tagged ‘State of the Union Address’

Congress Talks at a High School Level

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

In a body known for such talented orators as Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen and Senator Robert Byrd, it’s disheartening to learn that a new study has determined that the average member of Congress speaks at the same level as a high school sophomore – that’s nearly a full grade lower than in 2005.  According to the independent watchdog group, Sunlight Foundation, some people will view its findings as “a dumbing down of Congress” while others will interpret the report as “more effective communications” from lawmakers.  To contrast, the typical American reads between an eighth-grade and ninth-grade level.

Representative Mick Mulvaney, a freshman from South Carolina, scored the lowest, speaking at a 7.94 level, a level between the seventh and eighth grades.  Mulvaney, who received his bachelor’s degree at Georgetown University and law degree at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, said he follows a simple rule: Avoid using big words when a little one will do.  “Gosh, I guess I should be disappointed that I’m not using my higher education to better use, but, oh well,” Mulvaney said.  “I hope people don’t take it as a substitute for lack of intellect, but small words can be just as powerful as big words sometimes.”  California’s Representative Dan Lungren was ranked the highest by the Sunlight Foundation, speaking at a 16.0 level on the Flesch-Kincaid scale.

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein wonders if political polarization is dumbing down Congress. According to Klein, “Polarization has changed the way that members of Congress vote.  But it turns out it may also be changing the way they talk.  Generally speaking, the most moderate members on both sides of the aisle speak at the highest grade levels, whereas the most politically extreme members speak at the lowest grade levels.  Before 2005, Republicans had spoken at a higher grade level than Democrats; now it’s flipped.  Newer members are also likely to speak more simply than more senior ones, so freshmen Republicans are most likely to speak at the lowest grade level in Congress.

Sunlight plugged speeches by members of Congress into a searchable database and then applied the Flesch-Kincaid test to determine the lawmaker’s score.  Longer words and longer sentences equal a higher grade level, according to Flesch-Kincaid.  Sunlight found that members of Congress, on average, spoke at a 10.6 grade level, a change from 11.5 score in 2005.

Lee Drutman, a political scientist at Sunlight, who ran the speeches through an algorithm to determine the grade level of congressional dialogue said “We just kind of did it for fun, and I was kind of shocked when I plotted that data and I saw that, oh my God, there’s been a real drop-off in the last several years.”  According to Drutman, an infusion of new members into Congress – many aligned with the Tea Party movement — could be part of the reason for the overall grade-level decline.  “Particularly among the newest members of Congress, as you move out from the center and toward either end of the political spectrum, the grade level goes down, and that pattern is particularly pronounced on the right.”

The Sunlight Foundation noted that two speeches viewed among the best in American history the Gettysburg address by President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, or the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. only scored at 11.1 and 9.4 grade levels.  Another point is that before 2005, Republicans spoke at a slightly higher grade level than Democrats.  Since that time, Democrats have spoken at a slightly higher grade level than Republicans.

Writing for The Atlantic, Eric Randall points out that “Strunk and White put it even more plainly in their famed writing manual, noting,  ‘Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.’  Flesch-Kincaid rewards long words and winding sentences, but clarity rewards the opposite.  The Sunlight Foundation, to its credit, notes this interpretation, too, but it still seems that most people will walk away from the report thinking only that our leaders talk like a bunch of high schoolers.  We wondered how others might measure up, so we used an online Flesch-Kinkcaid calculator to find out.  A recent post by this writer scored at a 10th grade level.  (So you can see why we’re not bashing Congress too badly.)”

According to the Sunlight Foundation’s analysis of some of the country’s most prominent documents, the U.S. Constitution is written at a 17.8 grade level; the Federal Papers at a 17.1 level; and the Declaration of Independence at a 15.1 level.  An analysis determined that President Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union (SOTU) address had an eighth-grade comprehension level – the third lowest score of any SOTU address since 1934).

Congress Bids Gabby Giffords a Fond Farewell

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

A rare glimpse of bi-partisanship was seen today in the House of Representatives as Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) officially resigned, slightly one year after being shot in the head at a “Congress on Your Corner” session in her native Tucson.  Giffords, who resigned to devote her time to undergoing intensive rehabilitation, walked with a limp.  With the guidance of her friend, Democratic Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Giffords slowly made her way to the well at the front of the House chamber.  Another friend, Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ), held her hand.  Wasserman Schultz praised her colleague’s strength.  “I am so proud of my friend,” she said.  “It will always be one of the great treasures of my life to have met Gabby Giffords and to have served with her in this body,” the Florida congresswoman said.

According to Giffords’ resignation letter, “Even as I have worked to regain my speech, thank you for your faith in my ability to be your voice.  Everyday, I am working hard.  I will recover and will return, and we will work together again, for Arizona and for all Americans,” she pledged to her former colleagues and constituents.  Giffords, who has promised that she will return to public service when she is fully recovered from her gunshot wound, faces months – even years – of rehabilitation.

One of Giffords’ final actions in her five years in Congress was to vote in favor of a bill that she had co-sponsored and which dealt with smuggling on the United States Mexico border. The measure passed unanimously. The legislation outlaws the use of ultralight aircraft to smuggle drugs.  Giffords’s congressional district includes part of Arizona’s southern border with Mexico.  The legislation, which the Senate is expected to approve quickly, would subject violators to up to 20 years’ imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.

The session was emotional at times. Democratic Minority Whip Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said “The House of Representatives of America has been made proud by this extraordinary daughter of this House, who served so well during her tenure here, who felt so deeply about her constituents and cared so much for her country.  Gabby, we love you. We have missed you.”  Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) was teary-eyed as he formally declared Giffords’ resignation.

Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly – a retired Navy Captain and former astronaut – summed up his wife’s position.  “She realized she was not going to run for re-election and this point the right thing to do was for her to step down,” Kelly said.  “But I’m more optimistic than anybody else about her future.  She just needs some more time, whether it’s a year or two years or three years, I’m very confident she’s going to have a long and effective career as a public servant.”

Writing in the Tucson Citizen, Carolyn Classen said that “There is a bumper sticker ‘Gabrielle Giffords continues to inspire’ which was placed at the Tucson three impromptu memorials that sprang up after the shooting.  It was a testament of her courage and inspirational fight back to health, which is still ongoing (and the reason for her resignation).  Because the Glock 9mm bullet entered the left side of her brain, Gabby’s right leg, right arm/hand, and speech were affected by the injury, and she now is working in rehab with her aphasia –speech & language difficulties — and reduced physical mobility.  Prior to this shooting, Gabby was an avid hiker, and rode horses, a bicycle, and a motorcycle.  But I know what a healthy, friendly, strong-willed individual she was as a politician and community activist, and I know she will work tirelessly now at age 41 to recover fully from her injury.  She took a bullet in the line of duty as a U.S. Congresswoman and should be praised for her courage and resiliency, and hard work for over 10 years as a state & federal legislator.”

With Giffords’ resignation, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer is required to schedule a special election to fill the term.  The primary is likely to be in April and the general election in June.  The winner will then be up for re-election to a full two-year term in November.

Arizona law requires that the governor act within 72 hours to schedule a special election to fill a vacant U.S. House.  According to Brewer spokesman Matthew Benson, the 72 hours begins Wednesday, January 25, at 5 p.m. because that is when Giffords’ resignation takes effect.