Of late, the hallways of Congress have felt less like a revered 200-year-old political institution and more like the inside of a high school with divided cliques and petty fights. But its not just how lawmakers act that mirrors something out of a CW teen drama, but the level of discourse has also devolved.
In the House and Senate, the average lawmaker speaks at the level of a high school sophomore, according to a new report by the Sunlight Foundation. That's a grade level lower than lawmakers were speaking in 2005 and significantly more simplistic than the U.S. Constitution (written at a 17.8 grade level) and the Federalist Papers (written at a 17.1 grade level).
Yet most Pennsylvania lawmakers use more elevated diction than their peers. U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach is the highest, delivering floor speeches using college sophomore-level language. He's also ranked third in the entire Congress.
In one floor speech about the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, Gerlach said: " By leveling the playing field and eliminating burdensome tariffs, these agreements will improve our ability to sell American-made products overseas. Specifically, in Pennsylvania, these agreements will be a boon for the Commonwealth's farmers and provide new opportunities in other key export sectors of Pennsylvania, including primary metal producers. Tariffs on more than 90 percent of primary metals, such as steel, titanium, aluminum, and zinc will be eliminated immediately."
Other local area U.S. representatives deliver higher level speeches than their average peer. Charlie Dent and Allyson Schwartz are at a high school senior level, while Lou Barletta, Mike Fitzpatrick, Tim Holden as well as U.S. Sen. Bob Casey are a grade level lower -- high school juniors.
Among those in the Pennsylvania delegation who use the simplest language is U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey whose oratory is at a 10th grader's level. That is in line with Sunlight's finding that "grade level of Congressional Record speeches declines among Republicans as the voting record becomes more conservative."
Sunlight used the Flesch-Kincaid scale to measure the lawmakers' floor speeches, a test that assigns a higher grade level based on the length of sentences and number of syllables in the words used.
The author of the study, Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at Sunlight, attempted to explain the dumbing down of congressional speech in his report.
"It’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause of the decline. Perhaps it reflects lawmakers speaking more in talking points, and increasingly packaging their floor speeches for YouTube. Gone, perhaps, are the golden days when legislators spoke to persuade each other, thoughtfully wrestled with complex policy trade-offs, and regularly quoted Shakespeare," Drutman wrote. "The data indicate that part of the decline has to do with new junior members speaking at a lower grade level than more senior members, and some of it has to do with individual senior members simplifying their speech over time."
Read the full Sunlight Report here.