Presidential Question Time – Good idea but a terrible name

John McCain said in a speech that he would ask Congress for an American equivalent of the Prime Minister “Question Time” that occurs in many parliamentary governments. There have been some editorials on this from George Will and the New York Times as well as some blogging on the concept.

I think most people miss the point (although Mr. Will probably comes the closest to getting it right, in my opinion). In most Parliamentary Government systems, the voters elect the Parliament and they, in turn, elect the Prime Minister (in the UK countries this is slightly different in that the Monarch actually appoints the PM but in modern history the Monarch appoints the choice of the Parliament).  So in this government, the Prime Minister serves at the pleasure of the Parliament.

To compare this to the US would mean that the offices of Speaker of the and Senate Majority Leader would combine to satisfy the role of the Prime Minister (not exactly of course, but close).

As any 7th grade US student should be able to describe, we have 3 separate and equal branches of government. The Senate and House form the Legislative branch and the President forms the Executive branch. The Executive branch is not more answerable to the Legislative branch than vice versa.  They are equals.

So while I think more open dialog in our government is important, Mr. McCain would be wise not to adopt the British form that is also broadcast on CSPAN.  He doesn’t answer to Congress anymore than Congress answers to him.

Instead, if Mr. McCain is elected and decides to implement this idea, it needs to expand:

  • for every question from Congress, the President should be able to ask a specific question to someone from Congress that is in attendance.  This balances the level of accountability
  • in Britain there is a time limit for the questions.  The US would also need a time limit to cut off long speeches (maybe even a time limit in the phrasing of a question).
  • the overall time should be cut in half.  The first half of the US would be with the Congress and the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House.  Since they are rough approximations of the Prime Minister, it is reasonable that they should be accountable to their collective bodies.  Perhaps they could rotate who is grilled by week.  The second half of the event would be the US President and the two way question session I propose above.

I think that all of this would make for an interesting addition to the political process.  It would add more transparency to the process and allow the US President to remind Congress to get their jobs done.  It would also allow Congress the opportunity to force the President to explain his/her decisions and reasons.

I am done with this topic for now but I reserve the right to rant more on it someday.

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4 thoughts on “Presidential Question Time – Good idea but a terrible name”

  1. Hi,

    Thanks for the link to my blog in your 1st paragraph. I’m honored to be mentioned in the same paragraph as George Will and the “Paper of Record”.

    Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but it seems to me that you’re saying that QT works in the UK only because they elect the Prime Minister. They have a parliamentary democracy and we have a representative democracy, but I don’t see either being a prerequisite to Question Time.

    I still stand by my approval of Question Time in the Executive Branch, if not exactly the same that is used in the UK, then one tailored for our republic. My point is that the Presidency needs more accountability and credibility. This administration has wielded the instrument of Executive Orders in a way unprecedented in American history. They are almost like fiat, shaped and molded to fit the aims of the administration, with almost no input from Congress.

    I disagree with the idea of the President turning tables and questioning Congress. Seeing how partisan both parties are right now, Question Time in this form would devolve into nothing more than another stalemate. But the idea of having citizens question Congressmen/women while it is in session, IN FRONT OF THE PEERS (and on C-SPAN)…. now that’s an interesting idea.

    Finally, I disagree with your assertion that a 7th grader can describe the three branches of government. Have you actually spoken to the typical middle-schooler these days? They scare with the almost total lack of knowledge of the world around them. Even more frightening is the type of adult they will grow up to be. Now, THAT’S a rant-worthy topic.

    Non-sequitur: as Churchill said, “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

  2. Roland –

    Thank you for your comment and thoughts. I actually have regular discussions with a 5th grader, 9th grader and 11th grader (my kids) and their best friends. If they and their friends are any indication of the future leaders of this world then my recommendation is that we step aside and let them take control right now. Unfortunately though, I think my daughter would agree with Paris Hilton and want to paint the White House pink (http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/64ad536a6d).

    Seriously though, my point is that Question Time in the UK (where it first evolved and was then adopted by other parliaments) grew out of a requirement that the PM respond to Parliament as to his schedule of the day and then any follow on questions. The Constitution has no such requirement except for periodic updates as to the state of the union but absolutely no requirement to answer questions.

    For the President to answer questions that one group has for him/her without a further concession that he can ask questions is irresponsible and lacks the balance of government that the founders envisioned. The two are peers. Since they are peers to allow questions by one and not the other displaces the role of authority.

    You complain about our current executive and that complaint may be addressed in a QT. However what about the lack of ability for our Congress to approve Judicial appointments? So a member of congress from the Judiciary Committee could ask Mr. Bush about the lack of openness on wiretapping and why his committee wasn’t informed of the activity. He would then answer and then ask that same committee member about why Judge Jones/Smith/Johnson etc. was not being brought up for vote.

    I bring up this one point on judicial appointments as an example not the only fault. There are a variety of issues that get lost or stymied by Congress in its politicking that the President could question. Just as there are a variety of topics that Congress can challenge. The point is that since they are equal bodies, one should not be subjugated to the other in these challenges.

    Also, since Congress tends to be anonymous, this is even more crucial. The polls kind of reveal this weakness. Right now Congress approval rating is near an all time low. However, individual people in Congress are doing just fine. The two don’t make sense unless one thinks that the monolithic legislative branch is doing poorly but my guy/girl is doing just fine. Direct challenges by the President would allow for this shield to be broken to some degree and individual people could be called to task as to why they are blocking a vote or voting a certain way. This in the same philosophy that the framers of the Constitution foresaw.

  3. Personally I have been an advocate of the ʽquestions for the prime ministerʼ format for years and used to watch it regularly. You can learn more about whatʼs going on in British politics in 10 minutes than you can about the US govt in a week. I have used it (the lack of) a million times as an example of what is wrong with the current system, no accountability. If the current administration had to answer for their actions twice a week weʼd never be in this mess. Itʼs the fact that there is NO accountability that allows them to do the crap they do.

    Specifically here is why I disagree with your changes. Congress esp the House are the most granular representation the average citizen has in government. They are exactly the right people to grill the president twice a week and it makes no sense to me for the president to ask questions of them (the president grills the citizens?). Instead we have a system where Congress holds its own members accountable for bad acts (although clearly they should be doing a better job), in any case certainly not the presidents job.

    The current British format works really well. Hard questions are asked and forced to be answered. Nothing like it exists here today. Instead we have no accountability, presidents donʼt have to answer to anyone and rarely do. Every time a hard question is asked by anyone, you get an answer that has pretty much nothing to do with the question. Its absurd.

    I personally like John McCain, Iʼm glad to see he has at least one good idea.

  4. Funky –
    I am afraid that I partially disagree with you. I agree that QT for a President would probably be good but why stop there and not hold Congress responsible for its actions and inactions?

    Congress is not even close to being able to police itself. They are notoriously astute at back scratching deals that allow bills to swell with pork belly spending. I am not crazy about McCain as a candidate but at least he has stated that these small amendments that double or triple the cost of a bill are terrible. Having the power to call out a representative or Senator and say, “Why did you propose this/vote for this amendment” would be a fair compromise from not having the ability to take such amendments out with a line item veto. Calling the congressman/woman to the carpet and making her explain why there is an amendment would make everyone think twice about ballooning costs for pork. I offer this as just an example of the excess of Congress and not the only reason for QT on them.

    In every parliamentarian government that I am aware of, the PM is a member of Parliament first. There are a few possible exceptions where the PM doesn’t have to be a member but in the ones that I can think of, the PM then needs to run for Parliament in a special election. This is not the case with our federated republic. If the one branch allows its actions to be more transparent to another branch the spirit of the constitution says that something must be done in reverse for a check and balance.

    Congress’ approval rating is at an all time low (as is the Executive branch – almost – Truman may have fell lower than GWB – don’t know). However, with the collective Congress being in the collective shitter, there is little talk of a major turnover of personnel in this election year. How can this be?!?! Simple, everyone thinks that their guy/girl is alright, it is the rest of the idiots that are bad. There is absolutely no transparency for their actions. I am a relatively astute citizen and I regularly check the votes of my elected representatives to the federal government but even I don’t know the back room deals and committee procedural blocking efforts that may have been pulled that I would have thought to be atrocious. With the concern of QT, would my Senator be willing to agree to vote for that pork barrel amendment for the Senator from Missouri. Also, would the trip to Fiji to study sandcrabs for 2 weeks be a congressional junket that would have occurred? (I made both examples up, I don’t know if either occurred).

    I think that QT would be good for the Presidency but I also think it would be good for the Congress if they were subjected to it. The lack of accountability and transparency to the American voter goes both ways.

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