WASHINGTON – Members of Congress love to talk, and the Congressional Record is always listening.
The comprehensive record captures every word members say on the House and Senate floors, mostly verbatim — ranging from praiseworthy notions about their hometowns to gaffes in the heat of the moment.
A Sunlight Foundation project called Capitol Words stores and analyzes the words in the Congressional Record from 1996 forward. As an illustration of the project’s precision, throughout March, members collectively uttered the words “that” 14,364 times, “for” 13,584 times and “is” 12,869 times.
An analysis of the words most frequently used by Minnesota’s U.S. senators and representatives on their respective floors during legislative sessions brings up expected terms such as “Minnesota” or “people” or “president,” referring to the Senate president addressed in sessions. Some are more unique, but any speech on the floors has the same end goal, according to University of Mary Washington political science professor Stephen Farnsworth.
“They’re indicative of their campaign priorities, above all,” Farnsworth said.
U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s two most used words, for example, are “health” and “care.” “Insurance” is his fifth-most used word.
According to Franken’s office, his words are justified: “Over the past few years, Sen. Franken has spoken on the Senate floor dozens of times on a wide array of topics important to Minnesota, and that includes several speeches on health reform,” said Maggie Rousseau, a Franken spokeswoman.
Rep. Tim Walz’s most used word — “veterans” — indicates his mission to act as a representative for the people, his spokesman Tony Ufkin said. Ufkin said Walz usually makes impromptu statements on the floor rather than prepared remarks.
“He’s constantly fighting for warriors and their families,” Ufkin said of Walz, who retired from the Army National Guard. “He cares about people from all walks of life who want to pursue and live out their own American dream.”
Rep. Erik Paulsen’s top word is “small” — he’s committed to small business entrepreneurs, he said — followed by “Minnesota.”
“My focus is not to be in Washington as some insider, but to be helping our state,” Paulsen said.
Rep. Keith Ellison’s top word is “people,” which he said he thinks is justified — “People are my No. 1 priority,” he said.
Rep. Rick Nolan has used “we” 190 times. It’s one of his most uniquely used words and indicates his view of his role, his spokesman Steve Johnson said.
“It’s not about him; it’s about the causes he champions and the people he works for and the larger good of the nation,” Johnson said.
For Rep. John Kline, whose most-used words include “today,” “support” and “yield,” his word choice represents his role as chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee and his duties managing floor debate.
“Some of the most frequently used words reflect more of the semantics of the floor and not necessarily his legislative priorities that include reducing the federal government’s footprint in our classrooms, working to speed up America’s economic recovery, and getting Washington’s spending under control,” said Kline’s spokesman, Troy Young.
Level of debate slipping
The House and Senate floors aren’t places for “serious, nuanced debate,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at New America, a nonpartisan think tank that looks at a variety of public policy issues. Congress spoke at a grade level of 10.6 — almost a full grade level lower than its 11.5 level in 2005, according to a Sunlight Foundation analysis by Drutman and Dan Drinkard.
They found that the most moderate members of both parties spoke at the highest grade levels, and the most extreme members spoke at the lowest grade levels. Since 2005, Democrats have spoken at a slightly higher level than Republicans (before 2005, the trend was flipped).
Despite their efforts to make it appear so, members of Congress aren’t like every other American, said Martin Medhurst, a professor of rhetoric and communication and political science at Baylor University.
“They ought to be far more articulate and far more informed than the average constituent is,” Medhurst said.
The bottom line is that constituents want a candidate who speaks as they do, but in the end, it’s mainly the mistakes made on the floor that are remembered, Farnsworth said. Franken once called Sen. Tom Udall a “senator from Utah” while presiding over the Senate in 2010 — Udall is a senator from New Mexico.
“Most of what a member of Congress says is forgotten about as quickly as it’s uttered,” Farnsworth said. “But the occasional misstep can haunt you for the rest of your career.”