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How Well Does Your Congressman Speak?

By Chuck Sudo in News on May 22, 2012 5:30PM

Joe Walsh speaks at a below 9th Grade reading level. Just don't call him dumb. (Image Credit: Jeff Cagle)

The Sunlight Foundation released a study that measures the speaking levels of the members of the 112th Congress. The study found that Congress speaks at a full grade level lower than it did seven years ago.

The analyses of congressional members' speech patterns was measured using the Flesch-Kincaid readability formula which, at its core, equates higher grade levels with longer words and sentences. The Sunlight Foundation's study doesn't necessarily mean that Congress itself is dumber. It could also be seen as a sign that our elected officials are attempting to more effectively communicate with their constituencies.

That still didn't stop the Sunlight Foundation from noting that the members of Congress with the lowest speaking levels tended to be its most conservative members. Among Illinois' congressional delegation, Eighth District Rep. Joe Walsh came in last, with a Grade 8.9070 speaking level. We already knew Walsh was a plainspoken man. Some pundits, like NBC Chicago's Ted McClelland, used the study as further proof that Walsh isn't the sharpest pencil in Illinois' congressional delegation.

"Number one, his political philosophy is not very nuanced. It pretty much boils down to “government spending bad.”

"When your ideas are simple, you only need simple words to express them. Number two, Walsh isn’t trying to impress his fellow politicians with his eloquence. He’s talking to people on TV. The average adult in the United States reads at between an 8th and 9th grade level.

"Walsh is an effective communicator -- and a sought-after talk show guest -- because his language is easily understood by “Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea,” as Walter Winchell, another great communicator, once put it."

Walsh's chief of staff Justin Roth dismissed the study, noting the Flesch-Kincaid method graded Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream Speech" at a 9.4 Grade level. (But that was also a nuanced speech that changed the course of American history.)

Not all Republicans in the Illinois delegation keep their speaking to single syllables. Sen. Mark Kirk speaks at a Grade 12.4 level, while Reps. Judy Biggert, Peter Roskam, Bobby Schilling, Aaron Schock, Don Manzullo and Tim Johnson all speak at a Grade 11 level or higher.

The Illinois congressional delegate with the highest speaking score is the representative where Chicagoist's Bridgeport headquarters is located, Third District Rep. Dan Lipinski, who speaks at a Grade 12.8 level. This isn't unexpected from the former University of Tennessee professor who Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg once said had "oddly avian features." It also doesn't explain why he keeps getting re-elected despite us never having met anyone in the Third who supports Lipinski. (Although we can make an educated guess the political machine Lipinski inherited from his father, longtime political kingmaker Bill Lipinski, is a major part of that.)