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Bring Heckling to the Colonies!

In a brief aside about the Joe Wilson “Liar!” comment, Matthew Yglesias writes:

Personally, I sort of liked Rep Joe Wilson’s idea of introducing British-style heckling to the halls of congress; totally disrespectful and out of step with American tradition, true, but their tradition is better.

I agree with this sentiment. I spent many a night in college staying up late to watch the House of Commons on C-Span because the style of Parliamentary debate in Britain is far superior than Congressional “debates,” which mostly involve Congresspersons speaking to an empty chamber.

I would also love to adopt the British custom of “Question Time,” where the Prime Minister engages head on with members of Parliament to our system, too. Sure, given the nature of institutions here, it probably isn’t practical to have the President address Congress every week, but how about once a quarter?

Frankly, a more rough and tumble style of debate would be good for Congress. It would shake things up, require more interaction, and require Congresspersons to think about issues beyond mere campaign positioning. Confession is good for the soul, and debate is good for the mind. It would improve politics all around.

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About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp writes about pretty much everything under the sun, including politics, art, religion, philosophy, sports, music, culture, and science.

Comments

  1. Triumph says:

    debate is good for the mind.

    If you actually watched Question Time, there is no way you could characterize it as “debate.” It is political theater–nothing more.

    It’s more like a British version of snaps. I could see it play out now:

    “Senator Byrd, you’re so old you knew Captn Crunch when he was still a Private.”

    “Speaker Pelosi, you’re so ugly they should put your face on a poster for abstinence”

    When Pelosi was born she was so ugly that the doctor slapped her parents.”

    “Obama is so stupid, when I tolds him to squeal like a pig, he said ‘Moo'”

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  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I prefer the rowdier style in the British Parliament, too. And I’d be in favor of Question Time.

    Their parliament is also substantially more representative than Congress is. If we had as many Congressmen relative to the population as there are members of Parliament (Commons) we’d have more than 3,200 in Congress. The average age of MP’s is substantially younger and their backgrounds are more varied, too.

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  3. Furhead says:

    During the campaign, McCain suggested bringing some sort of British-style question time to Congress. It was one of the high points of his campaign for me.

    Also, from my brief stay in the UK earlier this year, I saw that reporters actually grill the politicians, asking difficult follow-up questions and not allowing the politician to weasel out of answering. It made me a little uncomfortable, to be honest, but I think it was necessary.

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  4. ggr says:

    Have you watched much Parliamentary debate? It tends to be aimed at sound bites, and reminds most people who live in a country with it (Britain and Canada for instance) of the kind of childish name calling that most children grow out of by the age of ten.

    Its rarely the kind of serious debate you’re talking about. In Canada, when it first became televised, it shocked most of the population by its incredible childishness.

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  5. Alex says:

    Actually, what’s interesting is that Joe Wilson broke one of the very few rules that Question Time has. Under Parliamentary debate rules, members are explicitly forbidden from calling the speaker a liar – it is to be assumed that everyone is speaking in good faith.

    In practice, the MPs have developed all sorts of roundabout ways of implying that the speaker is a big fat liar without saying it outright, but the fact remains that Wilson’s cry of “You lie!” would have been out of bounds and resulted in a formal reprimand even under the rough-and-tumble rules of Question Time.

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  6. Drew says:

    A most hearty agreement.

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  7. TangoMan says:

    If you want entertainment you can’t go wrong with the Cage-Match style of the Korean Parliament.

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  8. odograph says:

    I don’t think Americans could possibly get the balance right. We don’t do civilized dissent very well.

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  9. ggr says:

    If you want entertainment you can’t go wrong with the Cage-Match style of the Korean Parliament.

    Its interesting they seem to have separate men’s and women’s events … perhaps they’re hoping to introduce it as a trial Olympic sport?

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  10. just me says:

    I used to watch Question time. I would kind of like to see something along those lines in the US. Not sure I like the idea of heckling though-it just screams unprofessional to me, but then I don’t think I ever found the UK’s question time unprofessional just very different.

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  11. Brett says:

    I would also love to adopt the British custom of “Question Time,” where the Prime Minister engages head on with members of Parliament to our system, too. Sure, given the nature of institutions here, it probably isn’t practical to have the President address Congress every week, but how about once a quarter?

    This would be a fantastic idea, although I think you could probably have it so that the Vice President can stand in for the President in a hypothetical American Question Time, as long as the President does it a certain minimum number of times.

    As for concerns about it being political theater and “childish”, I think you’re missing the point. The goal of it would be to bring the concerns of the members of Congress directly to the forefront, and to force the President to respond directly to a variety of criticisms without the ability to entirely hide behind press conferences and speeches.

    Frankly, a more rough and tumble style of debate would be good for Congress. It would shake things up, require more interaction, and require Congresspersons to think about issues beyond mere campaign positioning. Confession is good for the soul, and debate is good for the mind. It would improve politics all around.

    I’d argue that we’d actually be returning to our American roots by adopting a more rough-and-tumble style of debate. You really have to read a solid history of American government in the 19th century to realize just how partisan the place was – party politics seeped into virtually everything, including foreign policy.

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  12. Shaun says:

    It wouldn’t work. Bagehot was right when he pointed out, in the 19th century, that the structure of Congress isn’t designed to promote debate. In Bagehot’s words ‘it’s all prologue and no play’. I think it’s even reflected in the design of the chamber. Congress isn’t designed for debate but for monologue.

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  13. [...] Knapp agrees with this idea and adds this: I would also love to adopt the British custom of “Question Time,” where the Prime Minister [...]

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  14. [...] makes a very good point here, extending the argument Alex Knapp makes in Bring Heckling to the Colonies! And, as a matter of principle, I agree.  Of course Wilson has a right to call Barack Obama a [...]

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  15. [...] Also, on the (misleading) British reference, Alex Knapp and Matthew Yglesias. [...]

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