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Nonprofit Analyzes Lawmakers’ Speech Levels; Law Grads Come Out on Top and Bottom

Posted May 23, 2012 5:29 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Lawmakers with law degrees come out at the very top and bottom of a ranking of U.S representatives and senators based on the sophistication of their congressional discourse.

At the top of the ranking by the Sunlight Foundation is U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., a Georgetown University Law Center graduate and former California attorney general. His grade level on the Flesch-Kincaid scale for this session of Congress is 20, NPR reports. The scale gives higher grade levels to those who speak with longer sentences and use words with more syllables.

The story gives an example of Lungren’s long sentences: "This Justice Department, in my judgment, based on the experience I've had here in this Congress, 18 years, my years as the chief legal officer of the state of California and 35 or 40 years as a practicing attorney tells me that this administration has fundamentally failed in its obligation to attempt to faithfully carry out the laws of the United States."

At the bottom of the ranking is U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., who graduated from law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He had a speaking grade level of 7.94, NPR says.

Mulvaney’s father was a high school grammar teacher who taught his son that clear writers use small rather than big words. "Gosh, I guess I should be disappointed that I'm not using my higher education to better use, but, oh well," Mulvaney told NPR. "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."

Overall, the speaking grade level of U.S. lawmakers has fallen from 11.5 in 2005 to 10.6 today, according to the Sunlight Foundation. The group performed the analysis by plugging the Congressional Record into a searchable database.

NPR analyzed its own word use and determined its story was written at an 8.2 grade level.

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