Question Time for the USA

Christopher Hitchens draws attention to a proposal by John McCain that received scant attention when announced last week:

“I will ask Congress,” said the presumptive Republican nominee, “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.”

Hitchens is enthusiastic and recounts the history of such proposals in the past, lamenting that executive branch caution or arrogance always stopped the idea from getting too far. He fails to note, however, the obvious objection: The United States does not have a parliamentary system but rather, as every schoolboy knows, a system of separation of powers.

It is true, I suppose, that something like Question Time could be established as part of the process of checks and balances. But the rationale for it in the UK and Canada is that the Prime Minister is, in theory at least, merely the designated representative of the majority in the Commons and is therefore accountable to them. By contrast, the American president is separately elected by the people (via the device of the Electoral College) and answers only to them.

As a practical matter, it wouldn’t function here for another reason: We don’t have the equivalent of the Oxbridge System. Every prime minister was educated via a method that strongly emphasized debating skills and, came up through the ranks of the parliamentary machinery and demonstrated that they were particularly good at that sort of give-and-take. That’s not the case here, as the current occupant of the White House demonstrates on a regular basis.

McCain would, I think, hold his own nicely at Question Time. Obama, too, has the intellectual skill set, although he’s not yet as adept at going on the offense. But most American presidents, including some pretty good ones, simply weren’t good at thinking on their feet and issuing sardonic one liners.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Congress, Political Theory, The Presidency, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Brian Knapp says:

    Another reason it wouldn’t work is that the style of debate, or what style prevails in the UK, isn’t acceptable to most in the U.S.

    It would only end up much the same as the drab and meaningless congressional hearings that increasingly take place on c-span. The president would wind up on the same field as Roger Clemens , just some fallen celebrity to wag fingers at.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that we’re long overdue for selecting for a skillset in presidents that includes thinking on their feet.

    There are a lot of other differences between the British system and ours that might be significant in instituting a Question Time. A far smaller proportion of MP’s are solicitors or barristers than are lawyers in our Congress. Commons is vastly more representative than our House. And the average age of Commons is younger.

  3. Michael says:

    I think Brian is right, our politicians don’t talk to each other, or even at each other, everything is scripted and rehearsed for the cameras. McCain wouldn’t be questioned, he’d be read a diatribe against him and/or his policies, put in the form of a question. He would then respond with a promotion of his current actions and/or policies, put in the form of an answer.

  4. vnjagvet says:

    There is no reason that a particular President could not voluntarily have “Congressional conferences” from time to time as he/she now has press conferences. This would not have to be in place of, but in addition to press conferences.

    Whether on the floor of the house or senate, or at some neutral place, it might be quite effective in opening up communications.

    I think it would be interesting to see what would happen if McCain offered this possiblity and some Senators and Representatives took him up on it.

  5. Michael says:

    McCain doesn’t have to wait until he’s president, he is more than welcome to publicly take and answer questions from his fellow congressmen right now, in the middle of his Presidential campaign.

    He’s also perfectly capable of offering a completely open debate with either Obama or Clinton, where they can ask each other questions and expect answers.

    I’m guessing he won’t be so open to it now, or in the event he gets voted into the White House.

  6. vnjagvet says:

    You never know about fighter pilots. They love to get inside the other guy’s OODA loop.

  7. Beldar says:

    The reason this won’t work has nothing to do with who’s President or what skill-set he or she brings to the Question Time.

    The members of the House of Commons run for election primarily as representatives of, and with the effective permission of, their respective parties. The campaigns are short and, compared to American standards, rarely very personal. Party discipline is effective, and it generally reigns in and systematically discourages mavericks and “characters” of the sort who all too often run for office in the States.

    In America, even Congressmen, and especially Senators, run as regional princes. Their names and faces, their personalities and histories, are precious to them and to their reelection possibilities. And there is no force in the universe, either natural or supernatural, that can dissuade them from using TV time to promote their reelection.

    Anyone who’s watched even a very high-profile, time-circumscribed Congressional hearing — for example, the Senate confirmation hearings of Chief Justice Roberts, or the recent House and Senate hearings in which Gen. Petraeus and Amb. Crocker testified — knows beyond any doubt that the Congress-critters can’t seem to do anything but make speeches (most of them very bad). They couldn’t manage to ask a crisp, precise question to save their lives.

    This is equally true of Republicans and Democrats.

    I’m quite certain that there are public officials in America whose skills match up to British PMs. (Chief Justice Roberts showed himself easily as skilled as Tony Blair on his best day at picking his way through complicated policy minefields, and in playing jujitso to tumble his most determined opponents’ best-crafted “gotchas.”) What’s lacking in America is on the side of the potential questioners.

  8. teqjack says:

    Why not also “return to those thrilling days of yesteryear” [sorry, I have no idea why a reference to Fifties telvision (Lone Ranger) came out but I’m leaving it there] via the method still occasionally used in the Japanese Diet and have fistfights in the House and Senate?