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Should We Bring “Question Time” Across The Pond ?

by @ 5:32 pm on September 10, 2009. Filed under Politics, U.S. Constitution

Matthew Yglesias makes this comment in connection with the Joe Wilson episode:

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. Unfortunately, Wilson was also lying about the point at issue and will thereby set back the cause of heckling by decades.

Alex Knapp agrees with this idea and adds this:

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.

John McCain made a suggestion similar to Alex’s back during the Presidential campaign and, all due respect to the Senator and to Alex, it’s as bad an idea now as it was then:

[P]rime ministers sit in the House because Britain’s system of government is not based, as ours is, on separation of powers. Granted, America’s separation of legislative and executive powers has become blurred. Legislators overextended by their incontinent involvement in everything, and preoccupied with reelection, do more delegating than legislating: Often the “laws” they pass are expressions of sentiments or aspirations that executive branch rulemaking turns into real laws. McCain’s proposal would further diminish Congress’s dignity by deepening the perception of its subordination.

Our constitutional architecture of checks and balances, as explained by the principal architect, James Madison, is: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” This design was supposed to serve various governmental functions — especially the protection of individuals’ rights from government made overbearing by the concentration of too much power in one branch.

But the interests — primarily electoral — of legislators have become tenuously connected to the defense of the rights of their place. They are passive about courts setting social policies and supine when presidents act with anti-constitutional independence, especially regarding national security. Routine presidential appearances in Congress, of the sort McCain proposes, would further reduce that institution to just another of the stages on which presidents preen.

It also poses the danger of unduly diminishing the power of the Presidency at the expense of increased Congressional prestige. If the President were forced to come to Congress on a weekly or monthly basis and subject himself to an hour or two of questions from the floor, regardless of content, it would have the potentially of diminishing the office far below what the Founders intended. Moreover, such a move would seem to require a Constitutional Amendment since the powers, duties, and roles of the two branches of government are pretty clearly set out in the Constitution (which is why McCain’s idea to make it “voluntary” was twice bad).

Rather than being a dialogue among equals, which is what British Parliamentary Question Time is since the Prime Minister is really just another member of the House of Commons, a Presidential “Question Time” would be yet another step down the road toward turning the Presidency into something that it was never intended to be.

Finally, getting back to the Wilson kerfuffle, it’s worth noting that even under the rules of the more raucous House of Commons, Wilson’s outburst would not have been acceptable.

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