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Illinois congressional delegation speaks at the level of high school juniors, study finds

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Updated: July 2, 2012 9:07AM

Members of Congress can be wordy. But just how smart are their speeches?

An analysis released Monday shows that Rep. Danny K. Davis has the most intricate speeches of Illinois members of Congress, with an average grade level nearly that of a college sophomore.

Tea Party favorite Joe Walsh is at the bottom of the delegation with an average speech level about equal to that of an incoming high school freshman.

The analysis was done by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Washington D.C. that specializes in government transparency projects. The group has been around since 2006, but for the first time this year, it analyzed the complexity of speech by members on the floor of the U.S. House and Senate since the mid-nineties.

The project highlighted several tidbits, but most notably that the overall speaking level of Congress has declined from an 11.5 grade level in 2005 to 10.6 in 2011.

“It’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause of the decline,” writes Lee Drutman, the Johns Hopkins political science professor who helped pen the analysis. “Perhaps it reflects lawmakers speaking more in talking points, and increasingly packaging their floor speeches for YouTube.”

Drutman also notes that the methodology — which rewards longer words and more complex sentences with higher scores — is “admittedly crude,” but still insightful.

Liz Bartolomeo, a spokeswoman for the foundation, said there could be many reasons for grade level differences, including a member’s seniority, party affiliation and whether they reside in the House or Senate, where speaking norms may vary.

But while the results may not directly reflect a member’s intelligence, the analysis “shows what’s on the mind of Congress,” she said.

The good news for the Illinois delegation is their average grade level is 11.3, about the equivalent of a high school junior. That’s higher than the 10.6 grade level of Congress as a whole.

And while the Sunshine Foundation’s analysis concluded that nationally the more conservative congressmen generally scored lower grades, the Illinois delegation didn’t appear to break down that easily.

Davis is definitely a liberal Democrat, and Walsh is a conservative Republican, but Democrats and Republicans were sprinkled pretty equally up and down the spectrum.

The top five in rank order were Davis, Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D), Sen. Mark Kirk (R), Rep. Tim Johnson (R) and Rep. Jerry Costello (D). The bottom five, lowest to highest, were Walsh, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R), Rep. Don Manzullo (R), Rep. John Shimkus (R) and Sen. Dick Durbin.

Spokesmen for the congressmen at both ends of the Illinois spectrum generally downplayed the study’s significance.

“Mr. Walsh doesn’t consider these rankings to be of any importance,” said Justin Roth, the congressman’s chief of staff. He pointed to the study’s contention that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” clocked in at about a ninth grade level, calling it “insulting” and “just proof that it’s a ludicrous study.”

Ira Cohen, communications and issues director for Davis, said he had not seen the study and wouldn’t comment specifically on it, but said Davis’s speeches are driven by content.

“He is generally recognized as an individual that shuns individual attacks and hyperbole,” Cohen said. “And is a thoughtful person when it comes to public policy.”

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