WASHINGTON -- When he speaks on the floor of the House of Representatives, Rep. Mick Mulvaney talks at just below an eighth-grade level, lower than any of his 534 congressional peers. Rep. Dan Lungren, by contrast, has spoken this congressional term at a 16th grade level, the highest level in Congress and roughly like a Ph.D. candidate defending a dissertation.
Does that make Lungren brilliant and Mulvaney dumb?
Mulvaney, a freshman Republican from South Carolina, laughs at the suggestion.
"Folks back home think I'm an effective speaker and an effective writer," Mulvaney told McClatchy. "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."
A new study by Sunlight Foundation, a Washington group that pushes for government transparency, is subjecting Mulvaney and other lawmakers who scored at low grade levels to kidding from their peers and ridicule in other quarters. 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. Mulvaney's thoughts on that method can be summed up with a simple word -- hogwash.
"I don't think anyone seriously equates sentence length with intellect," Mulvaney said. "If that was the case, then the kids who write run-on sentences would be the smartest kids in school. In fact, you could make a strong argument that it's much more difficult to speak clearly and concisely then it is to just ramble aimlessly."
Lungren, a ninth-term Republican from Long Beach, Calif., isn't apologizing for his ranking as the most erudite-sounding pol in Washington, however.
"It was kind of flattering to see that," he told McClatchy. "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 and Mulvaney have similarly impressive education credentials:
The Californian has an English honors bachelor's degree from Notre Dame University and a law degree from Georgetown University; the South Carolinian has an international economics honors bachelor's degree from Georgetown and a law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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 "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.