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.