The Corner

Question Time: America

John McCain is proposing bringing the political drama of Britain’s Prime Minister’s Question Time to America:

“I will ask Congress to grant me the privilege of coming before both houses to take questions, and address criticism, much the same as the prime minister of Great Britain appears regularly before the House of Commons,” McCain said in excerpts of a speech he is to deliver later in Columbus, Ohio.

I’ve actually thought an American version of this would be a good idea for a long time, but there are some serious Constitutional issues raised.  For a start, I don’t think the President should be requesting this as a privilege; actually, it should be the other way round.  I presume the Constitutional basis would be Article II, section 3, “He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union” and allowing representatives and senators to ask questions on the State of the Union would be consistent with that, I think.  In the U.K., the leaders of the political parties are given privileges to ask more than one question, with others decided by lot, and so it would be fascinating to see the majority and minority leaders perform week-in, week-out against the president under such circumstances. But I supect it would be better for the country if there were no such privileges.  It would also need to be decided who moderates and keeps order.  Mr. Speaker does that job in the U.K., but that is a supposedly neutral position.  Constitutionally, I don’t think Congress should be able to moderate the President when he speaks on his exercise of his duties.  I can’t imagine the Chief Justice will want to do it…

However, the PM’s Question Time isn’t really useful anymore as interaction between the legislature and executive, instead being for the most part a debate between the leaders of the political parties.  The same is not true of the Question Times held for the various cabinet secretaries to answer questions, where genuine work does get done.  Importing that could be a real benefit, and it might also stop some of the weaker cabinet appointments.  I can think of more than a few cabinet secretaries over the past decade — from both parties — who would be exposed in such a setting.  At the very least, it would reduce the effect of patronage and should increase competence at cabinet level.


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