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Dumb and Dumber: Congress, the Language, and the Facebook Fiasco

You're not imagining things. Congress is dumb and getting dumber.

According to the Sunlight Foundation, the median grade level for Congressional proceedings and speeches has dropped nearly a full grade level from eleventh to tenth grade.

The result of studying the Congressional Record for the past seven years, the Foundation's data also suggests that both conservatives and new congressmen are responsible for dumbing the entire legislative body down.

But I don't know if I buy that when you consider that Republicans own both ends of the scale.

For example, Rep. Rick Mulvaney , R-SC, speaks at an average grade level of 7.9 while Rep. Dan Lungren, R-CA, uses speech consistent with a college senior.

What I do find very interesting is that the majority of "sophisticated" speakers are only sophisticated when using prepared notes.

The Sunlight data tells us when the majority of our leaders have to speak extemporaneously -a five dollar word in itself- they appear just as "dumb" as the rest of us.

Maybe this explains why our leaders say so much yet actually communicate so very little.

Take the last 67 p residential addresses for instance. They were given at an average grade level of 10.7.

Meanwhile, all of President Obama's State of the Union addresses have tallied at a level you'd expect of an eighth grader, according to the University of Minnesota's Smart Politics.

Dumbing Down the Message

I actually think there is something else at work here. It's sound bites.

Our leaders are now trained to talk in them because they know that's what gets them re-elected and what sells in the nightly news. As a result, most politicians can't put together a string of intelligent sentences even if they wanted to.

Again, is this simply a matter of language? .... Or does it hide a bigger underlying issue?

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Wealthy Congressmen Don't Feel Your Pain

When you're as wealthy and comfortable as members of Congress are, it's tough to identify with people who are barely making ends meet.

The median net worth of Congress soared 15% from 2004 to 2010, with the average Congressman worth $913,000. Meanwhile, the median net worth of all Americans fell 8% over the same period to $100,000.

Nearly half of the members are millionaires.

Even America's richest 10% haven't fared as well as the typical member of Congress - their net worth in that time span has remained about even.

"There's always a concern that they can't truly understand or relate to the hardships that their constituents feel - that rich people just don't get it," Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, told The New York Times.

In fact, the trend of Congress members growing disproportionately wealthy stretches more than two decades.

According to a Washington Post study of Congressional financial disclosures, the median net worth of a member of the House - excluding home equity - more than doubled between 1984 and 2009, from $280,000 to $725,000. Meanwhile, the comparable wealth of the average American fell from $20,600 to $20,500.

The Post excluded home equity because it is one of several items not reported, or underreported, in congressional disclosure forms.

For example, members need only disclose a maximum of $1 million of assets belonging to a spouse, regardless of how much that spouse may be worth.

Take John Kerry. His wife, Teresa Heinz, inherited the vast Heinz family fortune estimated at about $500 million. That figure never appears higher than $1 million on his disclosure form.

And members don't have to disclose at all the value of their government retirement accounts and any personal property not considered an investment, such as automobiles and artwork.

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The Five Most Idiotic Things Congress Did This Week

As life for the average American has gotten harder and harder, elected officials in Washington have done little to help.

Congress wastes much of its time on political posturing and bickering. And in those rare instances when our representatives actually do something, they usually make a mess if it.

It's no wonder the job approval polls for Congress have fallen into single digits.

Here at Money Morning we've pointed out many of Washington's worst offenses over the years, but the truth is that the nonsense in our nation's capital never really stops - and not all of it makes the evening news.

To erase any doubt, here are five ridiculous things that happened in Washington just this week:

Any Excuse for a Fight: For the past week, Congress has been arguing about extending into 2012 the payroll tax cuts, which put about $1,000 into the pocket of the average worker in this year.

Most Republicans and Democrats alike agree it's a good idea. But instead of simply approving it, both sides are using it as a political pawn. House Republicans have tossed approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline into their version of the bill, which many Democrats oppose for environmental reasons. And Senate Democrats, with urging from U.S. President Barack Obama, have added a surtax on millionaires to pay for the payroll tax cut, which Republicans oppose.

As if to prove just how incredibly dysfunctional Congress can be, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, on Wednesday threw a routine government spending approval package into the mix to try to force Republicans to negotiate on the payroll tax issue. Failure to approve that bill would force a government shutdown - the same crass tactic Republicans used over the summer during the debt-ceiling crisis.

Drop it in the Memory Hole: On Monday Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-FL, insisted during an appearance on Fox News that the nation's unemployment rate had not risen since President Obama has been in the White House.

The U.S. unemployment rate was 7.8% in January of 2009, when President Obama took office, and 8.2% in February 2009, his first full month in office. Unemployment peaked at 10.1% in October 2009, and hovered above 9% for most of 2010 and 2011. It fell to 8.6% last month.

Wasserman Schultz is no backbencher, either - she's also chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Who Cares if You Have to Pay More for Gas? Most Americans favor getting tough with Iran, but not many want to pay more to gas up their cars - not that House lawmakers are worried about that. The Iran Threat Reductions Act, which the House passed on Wednesday, is intended to strengthen sanctions against Iran, but one nasty side effect could be a disruption of the oil markets. Iran is the world's fourth-largest producer of oil.

"This may cause short term difficulties for the world's oil market, and it may rankle some of our allies, but it is necessary, because stopping Iran's nuclear program is of paramount strategic importance, and we're running out of time," said Rep. Howard Berman, D-CA.

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