Why A Dumb Congress Is Good For America
“Congress Getting Dumber!”
So screamed headlines last week after the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation released a study showing that “Congress now speaks at nearly a full grade level lower than it did seven years ago.”
But according to those headline writers, Martin Luther King’s brilliant “I Have a Dream” speech would also be considered “dumb.” In fact, his speech would be dumber than Congressional speak.
Seven years ago, Congress spoke at an 11.5 grade level, according to the Flesch-Kincaid test. But the study found that Congressional speak decreased to the 10.6 grade level this year, still higher than Rev. King’s speech, which was written at the 9.4 grade level.
Pundits touting this study as a sign that Congress is getting dumber are not only wrong, but intellectually lazy. Instead of castigating members of Congress, we should be congratulating them for speaking more understandably.
Politicians who use terms such as “cloture,” “discharge resolution” and “supplemental appropriation” aren’t smarter. Nor are they helping their constituents understand what they’re doing; too often, they’re simply hiding behind incomprehensible legislative language.
Legislators have an obligation to reach their constituents in the one in five households that don’t speak English as their primary language. Or the six in ten American adults who haven’t obtained an associate degree by their 25th birthday. Or everybody else, unless they’re experts in Congressional arcana.
Consider this: Five of the eight “dumbest” speakers represent the Deep South, which has some of the nation’s lowest high school graduation rates. I’d argue that by speaking in jargon-free language, those members of Congress are serving their constituents well, not poorly.
I’ve written before about the need to simplify, which is completely different than “dumbing down.” A quote often attributed to Albert Einstein gets it exactly right: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
Perhaps this Congressional class is dumber than most. But this study doesn’t prove it.
According to the Flesch-Kincaid test, this article scored a grade level of nine. I guess that makes me dumber than Congress.
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Smart politicians know how to speak the same language as their constituents. They need to have that connection with them. Voters need to know that their elected official understands them, and during these very difficult times, voters want some one who can empathize with their situation. Although I have not looked into it, my sense is that the majority of the US Congress is well educated…and politically astute.