October 14, 2019
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Let’s borrow ‘Prime Minister’s Questions’ from the U.K.

Ben Stansall | AP
Ben Stansall | AP
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson talks to Ghurkas as he meets with military personnel on Salisbury Plain training area near Salisbury, England, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019.

Recent Brexit uncertainty in the United Kingdom brought added international attention to that country’s parliamentary proceedings. And, notwithstanding the current chaos surrounding the suspension of Parliament, we can’t help but wonder about potentially borrowing one particular tradition from our friends across the pond: Prime Minister’s Questions.

Each Wednesday that Parliament is in session, the British prime minister — who is also a member of the legislative body — takes a series of questions from members of the House of Commons. As was on display earlier this month when new Prime Minister Boris Johnson fielded his first-ever round of questions from parliament, the exchange can be rather raucous and contentious.

American politics are contentious, but nevertheless, we wonder whether adding some sort of legislative question time with our own top government official could be a welcome addition in the name of transparency and public debate.

We certainly don’t want to throw the presidential system on its head in favor of a parliamentary one. We literally fought a war to separate ourselves from England. But we’re intrigued with the idea of allowing for some form of President’s Questions here at home.

An ordered set of questions from legislators to the president — perhaps a pre-agreed upon number of questions from both political parties and both houses of Congress following the State of the Union — could be interesting.

This is far from a unique or unprecedented thought. The late Sen. John McCain, then a presidential candidate, expressed a willingness in 2008 to institute Prime Minister’s Questions-esque sessions in which lawmakers would be able to ask questions directly to the president.

“The guys that are on my side stand up and tell me how great I am, but there’d be others that would have some very tough questions to ask,” McCain said in 2008, as reported by NPR. “I’d like to see that.”

We don’t think it needs to be done as frequently as it is in the U.K., but some form of direct, public back-and-forth between the chief executive and legislative branch would be welcome. That is particularly true at a time when successive administrations have exerted increasing power at the expense of legislative authority — most recently with President Donald Trump going around Congress to fund border wall construction with money already appropriated for other purposes. A presidential questions session could help restore a measure of constitutional power equilibrium, even if only symbolically.

Constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley in 2008 expressed support for McCain’s question session idea, noting that the practice “frankly brings the prime minister down a notch.”

“These sessions humanize a prime minister and remind him that he’s a citizen and a temporary occupant of an office,” Turley told NPR at the time.

A little humanization could go a long way in today’s American political landscape. And adding a short, organized Q & A from lawmakers after the State of the Union could add some new life to what has become an often staid, predictable recitation of carefully-planned soundbites.

Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution says that the president “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.” There’s nothing in there about a required back-and-forth with Congress about those measures. But there’s nothing in there that prevents it, either.

C-SPAN asked President George H.W. Bush about the differences between the presidential and parliamentary systems back in 1991. His answer was lighthearted, but interesting.

“I count my blessings for the fact that I don’t have to go into that pit that (former U.K. Prime Minister) John Major stands in, nose-to-nose with the opposition, all yelling at each other,” Bush said at the time.

Again, we don’t see any need to import additional yelling into our political process. But there’s something to be said about a president engaging with his or her political opponents directly, formally and consistently.

Having a president answer a few post-State of the Union questions about the vision they just espoused, and do so without the help of a teleprompter, would surely test their grasp of policies and ability to think on their feet. It does run the risk of congressional opponents using the moment for a partisan attack. But we should trust an American president to command such a situation, just as we should trust American lawmakers to seek productive dialogue rather than discord.

Which leads us to a question of our own: Isn’t that the kind of leadership we should all want?

 



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