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Commentary: Has the tea party dumbed-down Congress?

U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., says no, even though a new study concludes that he speaks at less than an eighth-grade level. He scores lowest among 545 congressmen, including seven other Tea Party freshmen in the bottom 10.

The survey analyzed every word spoken by members on the floors of the House and Senate over the last six years and ran them through a test that equates education level with longer words and sentences. It concluded that congressmen speak at an average grade level of a high school sophomore.

Mulvaney, a first-term House member who graduated with honors from Georgetown University and earned a law degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argues that the study’s premise confuses intelligence with complexity of speech.

“I don't think anyone equates the polysyllabic nature of your words as a substitute for intellect,” he said.

Point well taken. An elected official should strive to communicate with constituents in the most direct and effective way. Big words and unwieldy sentences may turn off voters who themselves may be marginally literate.

The laws legislators propose are what matters, not the prose they employ to explain them. In the words of that American philosopher Forrest Gump: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

Given that yardstick, it could be argued that most House members are dumber than a bucket of rocks. The best, most recent example of their cluelessness occurred last week when the Republican majority voted to eliminate the American Community Survey (ACS).

The ACS formerly was known as the “long form,” a lengthy questionnaire distributed by the U.S. Census Bureau to about a quarter of U.S. households during the census. The long form upset many recipients because it asked about some things they considered nobody’s business, such as how many toilets they own.

In 2005 the Census Bureau began mailing the ACS to 250,000 households a month, for a total of 3 million questionnaires a year. There were two principal motives behind the change: 1. By separating the long form from the decennial census, Census officials hoped to see improvement in the census mail-back rate. 2. By conducting the ACS on a continuing basis, the information collected would be more timely – therefore more useful.

The strategy worked on both counts.

Although the mail-back rate for the 2010 census basically was flat with 2000, it reversed a long-standing trend downward. Because the rate of return was better than anticipated, the Census Bureau was able to return millions to the U.S. Treasury.

As with any government program, the value of the ACS should be open to debate.

To the Republican majority in the House, it represents both a waste of money and an affront to privacy.

Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Calif, who sponsored the bill to eliminate the ACS, said it was ineffective, “especially since in the end this is not a scientific survey. It’s a random survey.”

That a congressman doesn’t understand the difference between information randomly collected and a “random” or “scientific” survey, designed to obtain information from a representative slice of the population, is sad. That he and his colleagues want to destroy the country’s most reliable and accurate demographic information borders on insanity.

It would be one thing if ACS were helpful only to sociology professors and other numbers geeks, but it informs decision makers in every sector of public and private life.

“It tells Americans how poor we are, how rich we are, who is suffering, who is thriving, where people work, what kind of training people need to get jobs, what languages people speak, who uses food stamps, who has access to health care, and so on,” New York Times economics reporter Catherine Rampell wrote recently.

ACS data also helps determine how the federal government distributes $400 billion every year.

Moreover, the ACS is immeasurably valuable to American business. The Target Corp. was among the companies deploring the House vote, saying it relies on ACS data when deciding where to build new stores.

Ironically, the ACS is a reliable tool for measuring effectiveness of government programs. As Rampbell pointed out, its numbers frequently appear on websites of Tea Party congressmen.