10 Dumbest Members of Congress
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The Sunlight Foundation just released the results of a study measuring the scholastic grade level of speeches made by members of Congress. The scale uses the Flesch-Kincaid test and is based on the length of words and sentences used. Among its findings are, “Congress now speaks at almost a full grade level lower than it did just seven years ago, with the most conservative members of Congress speaking on average at the lowest grade level.” The study further found that it is the “most extreme members” who speak at the lowest grade levels, as well as the most junior.
As you may remember, a major turning point in American politics was the 2010 election that saw a wave of new Tea Party Republicans elected to Congress. Of the 20 lowest scoring members, 17 were Republicans, and 12 of those are in their first term of office. You have to go down to 15th place before you find a Democrat.
There are varying perspectives from which to interpret this study. On the surface it could be viewed as evidence that the intellectual capacity of the Congress is declining, thanks to the new Tea Party members who speak in short bursts of small words. That would be consistent with their shallow grasp of most issues and their tendency to reduce every discussion to a battle between liberty and socialism (drilling everywhere = liberty; clean air = socialism).
On the other hand, it could be said that concise expression makes communication more effective and accessible. So the fact that members of Congress are speaking at lower grade levels may be an indication of either creeping ignorance or enhanced manipulation. If this language analysis isn't the perfect measure of intelligence or effectiveness in government, let's take a look at some of the things the 10 lowest scoring members in the study have actually said and done, and judge them on that.
1. Mick Mulvaney, R-SC: Mulvaney is the co-author of the Cut, Cap and Balance bill that has been at the center of the debate on raising the debt ceiling. The bill would impose stiff reductions, mostly to programs that fund economic growth and aid to the poor. It would also cap spending for entitlement programs and call for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. Mulvaney is one of those extremists who would rather see the U.S. default on its debts and suffer a credit rating downgrade than reform the tax code to be more equitable and stop favoring the wealthy.
2. Rob Woodall, R-GA: Woodall once advised a constituent on Medicare that she should reject the government-provided plan and secure her health insurance on the private market. However, when asked why he refused to reject the health plan provided to him by Congress he said simply, “Because it’s free.” Then, to cement the impression that he is focused solely on his own welfare and special privileges for congressmen, he was one of only two votes against the STOCK Act that prohibited members of Congress from engaging in insider trading.
3. Rand Paul, R-KY: The son of cranky Libertarian Ron Paul, Rand is such a strong advocate of the free market that he opposes the parts of the Civil Rights Act that prohibit businesses from engaging in discrimination. He believes so firmly in personal responsibility that he wanted to let BP off the hook after its oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and flooding the Gulf with toxins. He called criticism of BP “really un-American.” More recently, he said of Obama’s support for same-sex marriage, “Call me cynical, but I didn’t think his views on marriage could get any gayer.”
4. Sean Duffy, R-WI: At a town hall meeting in Wisconsin, Duffy was asked whether he’d vote to cut his $174,000 congressional salary. He proceeded to whine about how $174,000 really isn’t that much: “I guarantee that I have more debt than all of you. With six kids, I still pay off my student loans. I still pay my mortgage.” Sounds like he could benefit from Obama’s proposals to reform mortgage and student loan debt.