Is Congress Getting Dumber?

That Congress is speaking at a lower grade level than it was seven years ago may be due to the unfortunate tendency to equate education with elitism.

Editorial Cartoon

Is Congress really getting stupider over time? Or are Americans forcing them to act that way?

A report by the Sunlight Foundation shows that members of Congress speak at a grade level that is one full grade lower than lawmakers did just seven years ago. The pattern is more pronounced among newer members, and less pronounced among moderates. And on average, the more individual lawmakers spoke on the floor, the simpler their speech tended to be.

But the trend may not be indicative of a general dumbing-down of Congress, but on the unfortunate tendency to equate education (or displays of education) with elitism, or an inability to connect with "regular" voters. It is one of the reasons foes of Democratic senate contender Elizabeth Warren refer to her as "Professor Warren"—as though being a Harvard Law professor is some sort of slur.

And more aggressive and heated rhetoric often is, by definition, comprised of simpler and less-thought-out language, because the ideas themselves are not thought out well. Calling someone names, as both parties have unfortunately taken to doing, is also indicative of a schoolyard mentality and with it, a schoolyard intellect. It's distressing enough that we have lost the tradition of genuinely great oratory on the floors of the House and Senate (will schoolchildren one day study the floor rhetoric of Sen. Rand Paul along with Daniel Webster and Henry Clay?). But the current level of dialogue in Congress enables a drop in standards in other arenas, as well.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the deficit super committee.]

It's not that most members of Congress aren't smart. Most of them are, and a few of them are brilliant. Many have advanced degrees in law or business. These attributes don't make them, necessarily, less attuned to the wishes and concerns of constituents. The education and experience should however, make congressmen more able to make difficult decisions, even if it's not what constituents want. Being in government means having to make painful decisions—deciding whether or not to go to war, or to raise taxes, or to cut spending, or reform entitlement programs. The easy—and often stupid—thing to do is to just do what agitated constituents at town meetings demand their congressmen do, even if the long-term effects are damaging. Representative democracy is a wonderful concept, but it doesn't mean that lawmakers should just vote based on formal or informal polls of their constituents. A 2-year-old may want candy for three meals a day. Sensible parents don't allow it.

So Congress can talk down to voters, thinking it will help them communicate with constituents more easily. But the better tactic would be to speak at the level they are capable—and telling the painful truth. Those words are not always so simple to say.

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