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Akaka among the most erudite speakers in Congress, study finds

By Star-Advertiser staff & McClatchy Washington Bureau

POSTED: 08:40 a.m. HST, Jun 04, 2012

WASHINGTON >> U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka speaks at a college sophomore level, according to an analysis of his speeches by the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington group that pushes for government transparency.

The analysis ranks Akaka in the top five among members of Congress for his use of longer sentences and more complex words.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye isn’t far behind. His speeches use words and sentences on the level of a college freshman. U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono speaks at the level of a high school senior, while U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa’s speeches are at the high school freshman level, according to the study.

U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who talks at just below an eighth-grade level, lower than any of his 534 congressional peers, laughs at the study.

“Folks back home think I’m an effective speaker and an effective writer,” Mulvaney, a freshman Republican from South Carolina,  told McClatchy Newspapers. “I try to write and speak in a conversational style. I have people thank me every week for at least making an effort to explain complex things in a comprehensible fashion.”

The study took lawmakers’ floor speeches since 1996, as published in the Congressional Record, and ran them through the Flesch-Kincaid test, which links longer sentences and more complex words with higher grade levels.

Rep. Dan Lungren, ranked at a “20th grade” level, the highest level in Congress and roughly like a Ph.D. candidate defending a dissertation, is flattered by his rank.

 “I very much am a student of the spoken word. I started as a debater and a competitive speaker in high school. I had outstanding teachers who challenged us to try to learn to communicate and to use the right words. As a legislator, I’ve tried to ensure that we pay attention to the words we put in statute,” Lungren,a nine-term Republican from Long Beach, Calif. said.

The Sunlight Foundation ran some cornerstone U.S. political speeches and documents through the same test. The Constitution came in at grade 17.8, about the level of a master’s degree student. The Declaration of Independence hit 15th grade, akin to a college junior. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address scored at the 11th-grade level. The Rev. Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech reached the ninth grade.

The average member of Congress speaks at a 10.6 grade level, down from 11.5 in 2005. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address to Congress in January clocked in at an 8.4 grade level. That’s almost exactly the 8.5 grade level at which the typical American speaks.

David Perlmutter, a political communications professor at the University of Iowa, found the Sunlight Foundation study to be - well, pretty sophomoric. He noted that Ernest Hemingway wrote short sentences with simple words and William Faulkner employed long sentences with complex words, yet both are considered great writers.

“I don’t buy the method, I don’t buy the conclusions and I don’t buy some of the analysis,” Perlmutter said. “We’ve all met idiots who have Ph.D.s and people who never went to college but are brilliant.”

Lee Drutman, a political scientist at the Sunlight Foundation who oversaw the study, doesn’t disagree.

“What some will interpret as the dumbing-down of Congress, others will see as more effective communications,” Drutman said.

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HOW MEMBERS OF CONGRESS RANK BY GRADE LEVEL

A recent analysis by the Sunlight Foundation assigned grade levels to all 535 members of Congress based on their House and Senate speeches since 1996. The method equates simple words and short sentences with low grade levels. Here are the five lawmakers with the highest grade levels and the five with the lowest, along with other key ratings for comparison:

U.S. Constitution (college master’s student, grade 17.8)

Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif. (college senior, grade 16)

Declaration of Independence (college junior, grade 15.1)

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif. (college junior, grade 14.9)

Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Pa. (college sophomore, grade 14.2)

Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis. (college sophomore, grade 14.2)

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii (college sophomore, grade 14.2)

Typical newspaper article (high school graduate, grade 12.5)

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (grade 11.2)

Average member of Congress (grade 10.6)

Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (grade 9.4)

Average American (grade 8.5)

President Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union speech (grade 8.4)

Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark. (grade 8.1)

Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis. (grade 8.1)

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. (grade 8)

Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga. (grade 8)

Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C. (grade 7.9)

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