Thursday, May 15, 2008

President's Questions

A friend points my attention to McCain's recent suggestion that the US President should have weekly meetings with Congress where he answers questions in the style of Prime Minister's Questions in the UK and Canada.

On the one hand, this seems like a very good idea. One of the greatest political frustrations of Americans, I think, is watching the President hold say-nothing press conferences where he gets to choose (to some extent) who attends, and where he has a reasonably easy time dodging questions. PM Questions is different. In Prime Minister's Questions (UK), the PM faces the opposition leader, who can hammer him about points of policy if he so chooses. Even in the more organized Canadian version, the PM is still facing a hostile and unified audience which has the right to be there - unlike in press conferences where individual reporters can be asked to leave, and all reporters are competing for the president's attention (making it easy for him to sidestep questions he doesn't want by simply giving a halfassed answer and calling on someone else). So yes, I think we'd all like to see a president a bit more accountable to the public for his positions in this way.

On the other hand, there are important differences between Westminster and Congressional systems that shouldn't be overlooked. Most importantly, the president isn't responsible for national policy in the same way that a Westminster-system Prime Minister is. The Prime Minister generally represents, and makes final decisions on policy for, the majority party (or ruling coalition) in Commons - i.e. for the sitting government. While he isn't de jure an elected dictator, de facto it sometimes comes close - especially in systems like Canada's where MPs aren't generally allowed to vote their conscience against their party in Commons. The president in a Congressional system, by contrast, heads a completely different branch of government, one which is, in theory anyway, not really concerned with creation of policy so much as its implementation. We all know that the presidency has gotten too big for its britches in the past 100 years (especially since FDR), and so maybe there's now some sense to calling the president to account for national policy. But I still worry that this kind of a Q&A session would lend too much public legitimacy to the (technically erroneous) idea that the President is the chief policy architect of the country. It may, in fact, even be used to try to usher in even more expansions of presidential power, such as line-item vetos, etc. (All a future president has to do is complain loudly that Congress is giving him more grief than he has power to answer in the Q&A session - you know, take the line that "if they're gonna hammer me about policy, maybe they should give me the power to make it?" - that kind of thing.) If someone should be answering questions on a weekly basis about policy, it should probably be the Majority leaders of each House. But even then it's sort of against the spirit of the original Republic - simply because the Founding Fathers made clear that they didn't want an adversarial system of competition between parties. Representatives were supposed to voice the concerns of their constituents, nothing more.

I suppose we're kind of a distance from the Republic the Founders intended in a number of ways, and more's the pity. So from a realistic point of view, I guess I have no objection to a weekly "President's Questions" set. And I would especially encourage a weekly debate between the majority and minority leaders of Congress. But in all honesty I doubt it's going to do much good. For one thing, our politicians have gotten so good at speaking bullshit that I don't think a Q&A session is going to do much to hold them to account. For another thing, there's probably not enough at stake in our system for this kind of thing to be really effective. In the UK system, it's people who are out of power questioning people who are in power, and that goes a long way. In our system, so much legislation is bipartisan, and the parties are (comparatively speaking) loosely organized enough, that I don't think you're going to see the same kind of block adversarial system that you see in Westminster systems. What you'd get is more along the lines of grandstanding by individuals advancing their special interests ... i.e. something not too terribly different from what goes on in Congress now.

If Senator McCain wants to say something useful about the presidency, then he needs to make clear that the president isn't responsible for fixing all the nation's problems. He needs to especially make this clear to Obama supporters, who seem to think that their guy is going to cure all their ills overnight just by talking pretty. In fact, the surest way to make himself distinct from Obama is to quit promising people the moon. And if something good were to come out of any future Q&A sessions, hopefully what that would be is showing the American people that there is no central desk in our Republic where "the buck stops," and that that's probably as it should be.


At 9:09 AM, Blogger noahpoah said...

Uh oh, now I'll have to start blogging again (which I've been meaning to do), since you cite me and all.

Anyway, between this blog post and the emails about the topic, you've provided a strong case for McCain's idea being kind of silly. Good job.

At 5:04 PM, Blogger Noah Motion said...

I linked to this post in a post of my own today.

Yeah, that's right. I fell off the wagon. I blogged again, after being clean for over a year.


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