“…If He Will List His Public Engagements for Today.”

Or, "He shall, from time to time..."

For the record, I’ve been calling for a “Question Time for the President” in this country since long before it was cool — and so has Senator John McCain (R-AZ). Surprisingly, despite a left eager to showcase our litigator President, and a right somehow convinced that, “one fine morning,” they’ll be able to catch him, the proposal to institute a regular “question time” has drawn some objections, among them a fear that routinizing the process would kill its magic; that it would somehow equate the President with the Queen of England (fallacy somewhere, I fancy); that it would diminish the majesty of our august legislative chambers; and finally, that it would be unconstitutional.

None of these really make much sense. Like, at all. In order, now: concerns about whether a routine question time wouldn’t be “spontaneous” enough goes to its one-time political utility for the winner, which is pointedly not the reason to implement it. Question time isn’t about the “head of state”; it’s about the executive branch meeting the legislative (in the U.K., every minister has “Question Time,” at least every two weeks). The once-august image of our legislative chambers already stands quite tarnished — if it ever looked that great to begin with. And apart from a few specific obligations, the Constitution is quite silent about what the President can do with his time, and when and how he can meet with the legislature. The State of the Union clause is a floor, not a ceiling,

He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient (U.S. Const., Art. II, § 3, cl. 1)

Like Holmes’ dog barking in the night, any statement of the regularity with which this ritual should occur is conspicuous for its absence.

Having met these spurious objections, let’s return to the reasons to institute a form of “question time.” First, it’s easy. The President need only make himself available; legislation would only encumber the ritual, and if the concern is continuity between Presidents, that’s no matter. These things have a way of ingraining themselves into political culture: once started, it won’t readily be stopped without raising a few eyebrows. Second, it is the very definition of transparency. Negotiations between the President and Congress, today, go on behind closed doors. Obama can and should change that in other ways, but exposing at least one aspect of the executive/legislative relationship to the public represents a compelling first step. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it cuts the media out of the debate between President and Congress. Both the internet and cable television have conspired to produce such a multitude of niche programming, that it’s all too easy to insulate oneself from controversy in all matters political. The lack of visible — and watchable — clash between political actors enforces this trend, and a popular political forum focused on each side scoring points off each other, and where spin can be called out as such, would go a long way to solving the problem.



  1. I always thought the disappearance of press conferences was a problem too. Kennedy did one monthly, I think. W did one? I know that the information that comes out is carefully managed and spun, but it made sure the president was thinking and engaged on all subjects. Here is an excerpt of Nixon talking to Bill Safire:

    “President Nixon: As you have pointed out, it’s an enormous amount of work. But it’s helpful to do it this way.

    Safire: I’ve learned more than I want to know about the government. [chuckles]

    President Nixon: It’s an amazing–you sort of wonder, don’t you, that–you can now see why even a mini-press conference, which I, you know what I mean, normally just go in and–well, where you’re not on television–well, of course, it’d be on the same on television. I have the same thing. It’s practically the same. But you can see why it takes so much work for the staff and so much work for me to put it all together.

    Safire: Right. You’ve just got to be ready for anything.

    President Nixon: You’ve got to be ready for everything. But also, you got to be ready not for just, you know, too many people, Bill, in the government–I mean our own people–they go on programs and all the rest, and they wing too much stuff. They really aren’t prepared. Don’t you agree?

    Safire: Absolutely.

    President Nixon: They really aren’t prepared. They just don’t sit down and do the work. They say they go on and they gas around but–and they do well enough. Most people don’t notice it. But I can’t wing anything. I’ve got to be prepared on every damn question, because people expect me to be. So that’s why we work on that.”

    Of course, we would need a decent press again too.

    Here is more from Safire himself.

  2. I fell into a chance to see PM’s Questions when I was in London a couple years ago (freakishly short line of citizens (who get first crack at gallery seating)). I can’t see how we wouldn’t want it in the US. In an earlier thread someone mentioned that Brits see it as a soundbite fest, and maybe it is, but it’s still more interaction between principals than we get here by a wide margin.

  3. Exactly. I actually fell OUT of a chance to see PMQs, which is tragic. I was working for an MP, and he meant to surprise me my last day there with PMQs tickets — they’re hard to get, even for Members — but, of course, I had an obligation for a class, so wasn’t there to be surprised :(

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