Changing the Discourse in Washington-“Questions to the President”
The unfortunate incident during President Obama’s health care address to a joint session of Congress on September 9 involving shouting from the Congressman from South Carolina, was, no doubt, “inappropriate and regrettable.”
The encounter also points out a greater problem, and a larger opportunity. We need to see Washington luminaries, of opposing viewpoints, actually addressing each other in spontaneous and substantive ways, where constructive exchanges are encouraged. Instead of interrupting a critical national address with rude and insulting words, those who disagree should be able to communicate on a higher level and in an accountable way, on the record.
The incident highlights a unique opportunity for real change in the way our leaders communicate with each other. If Members of Congress disagree with the President, the world should be able to witness them seriously debating specific points. We can then decide who has the better position, and understand the basis for public positions and platforms that are often phrased in mere headlines without any foundation.
It is ironic that in such an open society, the American public rarely gets to see the President talking, actually having a dialogue, with members of the opposition party. Such exchanges usually occur behind closed doors, whether it be in the Oval Room of the White House or private rooms on Capitol Hill.
For most citizens, the closest thing to watching the two sides actually conversing and listening to each other occurs every four years when Presidential elections loom. Otherwise they have to compare press conferences and blogs against media appearances and public relations releases and rely too much, way too much, on political pundits. The Sunday talk shows are too limited in time and guests, to be a meaningful stage for substantive exchanges viewed by the American people between the opposing parties. Published OpEd pieces pitting one view point against another are rare, and not widely read.
Perhaps the British have it somewhat right…it’s called “Questions to the Prime Minister,” (QPM) when the Prime Minister meets members of Parliament for what is envisioned as a debate. Referred to as a “Constitutional Convention,” pointed and tough questions are asked and insightful (and quick) responses are often given. Often irreverent and sometimes non-diplomatic, the sessions (which can be viewed on CSPAN) offer the voters the opportunity to hear candid arguments and accusations, and see what lies behind many of the issues and political positions in a way that even the Fourth Estate does not afford through the conduit of reporters asking questions.
Bluntly stated, QPM is another chance to understand what government is up to. We should adopt a modified version here.
This idea is not new. During the Clinton Administration, there was talk of creating an American edition of QPM, but it never reached fruition. One recent commentator, John Freehery (who worked for Republicans in Congress) wrote that the “President had little interest in subjecting himself to that kind of ridicule on a weekly basis.”
There is a compelling argument, however, for revisiting the idea for an American (and more respectful) form of the British practice.
First, if proper rules of decorum are established, questioning need not venture into ridicule and heckling can be banned. Just as both houses of Congress have rules about what their members can and cannot do, such rules can be established for “President’s Questions,” strengthened by sanctions in the event of inappropriate behavior, to ensure civility and meaningful discussion. Respect for the Presidency should, and must, be a guiding principle of the debate.
Second, the encounters can be limited to once every quarter. There is no need for a weekly forum, and can be 60 or 90 minutes in duration. In Britain, Prime Minister’s Questions are weekly for much of the year. That is too often for America, given the demands on the White House, but an exchange every 3 months would foster greater citizen participation in the little understood governmental decision making process.
Third, and most compelling, it would allow both sides to smoke out rumors and unsubstantiated charges in a publicly aired discussion to get past all the rhetoric and into the real and relevant guts of key issues. Think how quickly the “Death Panels” proclaimed as “fact” could be debunked by a President responding in an articulate fashion to his accusers in spontaneous and lively discourse.
Fourth, such sessions would educate the public, from school children to senior citizens, about the merits of each side’s positions, since each side could be heard talking to each other in which should be an unrehearsed forum. “President’s Questions” could be a showcase for debate, and an opportunity to infuse new opinions into the big issues of the day…directly to the top level of government.
This vehicle is so valuable it is used not only in the United Kingdom, but in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, India, Sweden and is being suggested in Israel, according to Wikipedia.
No doubt, there are problems with the presentation and evolution of Questions to the Prime Minister. On July 16, 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said his weekly exchanges with the British House of Commons lack serious debate in a “sensible and reasonable way” and is “not the vehicle” for a non-party political discussion. While no format is perfect, surely a commission of government leaders, political science professors and journalists can fashion a procedure that will improve on the existing British tradition and bring it to a new and highly responsible level in Washington.
Instead of hearing just “you lie,” such a meeting would allow the accuser to back up and expand on his or her statement, and afford the President a decent chance to respond. “President’s Questions” would promote an intelligent discussion…the “serious debate” Gordon Brown seeks, and not the incivility and sound bite we witnessed from a mistaken (and now somewhat apologetic) Congressman during Wednesday’s Presidential address.