Order! I Said Order!
Of late (that is, since Obama's performance in the face of questioning at the House republican Retreat last week- which is not a new practice, as it happens, only a newly televised one) it seems to have become somehow fashionable to suggest that what the United States is really lacking is some version of "Questions to the Prime Minister," (or more colloquially and hereinafter "Prime Minister's Question time" or "PMQ") a constitutional convention that has afflicted the United Kingdom in some formal format or another since 1961. (Certainly, it would be gratuitous of finem respice to suggest that the spread of television may have contributed to the adoption of regular schedule for PMQ in the United Kingdom).
Entertainingly, rationales for adopting some format of Prime Minister's Question time in the United States seem quite independent of one's assessment of the present level of power vested in the executive or that level's (in)appropriateness. To wit:
The Executive is too powerful and needs more checks, balances and transparency-
The structure of our Constitution is premised on each branch of government exercising its rights to prevent any one branch from over-reaching. Over time, the executive branch has consolidated a great deal of power and now exerts ever-stronger control over the information it discloses. When Congress, particularly in times of one-party government, chooses not to exercise its right to check executive overreaching, the envisioned balance in government comes undone.
The lack of balance fosters a lack of accountability and transparency in government and demands an adjustment to our system. One adjustment should come in the form of a President’s Question Time, an institutional element that would give muscle to Congress in times of one-party government, and that would further accountability and promote good government that is responsive to the people.1
The executive is too weak and needs the bipartisanship (or appearance thereof) and another forum (or some whipping boys) to accomplish anything-
Accepting the invitation to speak at the House GOP retreat may turn out to be the smartest decision the White House has made in months. Debating a law professor is kind of foolish: the Republican House Caucus has managed to turn Obama's weakness -- his penchant for nuance -- into a strength. Plenty of Republicans asked good and probing questions, but Mike Pence, among others, found their arguments simply demolished by the president.
More than the State of the Union -- or on top of the State of the Union -- this may be a pivotal moment for the future of the presidential agenda on Capitol Hill.2
Of course, this breadth of rationale cannot possibly have anything to do with the fact that a president widely felt as overly powerful (Bush) was in office when the first was written (executive needs to be called to account), and a president increasingly thought to resemble an empty shirt found this particular format worked for him when the second was penned (executive needs more tools to get the word out).
Far be it from finem respice to suggest that a bit of successful impromptu sport with House republicans (not exactly the most dangerous game roaming the great Congressional plains of the Serengeti, after all) on their quasi-vacation might have created a bit of executive overconfidence. In this light, it might also be unkind to suggest that this whole "question time" thing is highly unlikely to end well for this (or future) executives in the United States. Or that, on top of everything else, the idea as a whole is a quite dangerous and volatile experiment for American politics when taken to its natural conclusion- even if one ignores the patently obvious separation of powers issues it raises.
It would not be possible for finem respice to shrink from admitting to being a long standing fan of the United Kingdom's Prime Minister's Question time. Even the casual viewer of the once 15 and now 30 minute, weekly confrontation between Parliament and Prime Minister will have already taken away from the experience the intense and unflappable sense of the raw adversarial contest in it all. One need only browse a few examples to appreciate that it is likely only the notoriously flaccid physique of the English that prevents these verbal melees from coming to blows.
True, it is wonderful to delight in the somewhat fanciful belief that Obama might find himself able to carry even a constantly rowdy House in the way Thatcher consistently managed in the 1980s, or to pick up without so much as a hiccup only 19 days after being freshly installed by election in the manner of Tony Blair on the occasion of his first Prime Minister's Question time (and the first 30 minute session- one can literally see the strain and hints of perspiration even on Blair's young and sprightly frame by minute 25:00 and beyond as he is dragged into a defense of the minimum wage). But, then, you sort of knew Blair was mostly going to be ok, given the grillings he regularly delivered to John Major.
Be all this as it may for the optimist, one also easily imagines the absolute train wreck that might result from forcing the notoriously sensitive to ridicule Barak "The Law Professor" Obama to endure the sort of naked assault David Cameron regularly delivered to Gordon Brown a pair of years ago, being simply savaged from all sides as Brown found himself last June, or continuing with unflappable élan even after resigning 5 days earlier, as per Thatcher in 1990.
Several key components to understanding why Prime Minister's Question time works in the United Kingdom (and would likely be a disaster in the United States) require a certain cultural understanding of America's special friends across the pond. A certain naïveté in this area is probably why so many Americans seem so in love with the idea.
In the midst of World War Two, Bill Wright a Royal Air Force gunner aboard a Vickers Wellington bomber, was shot down over Holland. Captured by the Germans, he was eventually subject to several days of nearly ceaseless interrogation by multiple Gestapo officers during which he claims (quite credibly) to have offered only his name, rank and serial number. Plagued for years by nightmares of the experience, he eventually went on to produce the British quiz show "Mastermind" modeled on the daunting interrogation. The show premiered on the BBC in 1972 and the dark nature of its formative inspiration is immediately clear. Most obviously, the show is amazingly stark compared to flashy, theme song driven and effects laden game shows in the United States. The entire presentation of the show consisted of a studio audience, a single black leather chair onto which a single spotlight in a now darkened room was shone once the single contestant (or victim if you prefer) was seated. Then a salvo of simply withering questioning began. And, dear readers, one must actually see the spectacle to appreciate the fact that even a word like "withering" may be substantially understating the experience for the contestant. It follows that a literal barrage of challenges, one after another, is delivered without pause for the duration of the segment.
The show was, and is, wildly successful, having run essentially uninterrupted seasons every year since 1972. Readers will, of course, immediately recognize the show's many (and much watered down) clones in modern copies like "The Weakest Link" (right down to the British accent on the original host) and, perhaps, hints of inbred descendants in the staged train wrecks put on in the early audition acts of, for example, "American Idol."
Despite the presence of a number of these crude American copies, none would quite meet the unadulterated viewer lust for the social and intellectual misfortunes of others routinely exhibited by the British public. In fact, the only prize awarded to the eventual winner was an essentially worthless trophy... and bragging rights. It is the particular and paradoxical collision of English social masochism and rhetorical sadism draped in a cloak of elaborate social etiquette that drives the appeal of the show- along with the British penchant for political scandal, the predominance and quite rabid demeanor of tabloids, a highly plaintiff friendly libel law tradition (to which Members of Parliament are conveniently immune while in the House) and, of course, Prime Minister's Question time.
Even a cursory review of political structures and the political process in the United States should demonstrate, not only that the sort of direct and confrontational questioning Prime Minister's Question time represents is incompatible with the American political sphere, but also that an attempt to implement it therein will, almost by definition, end badly.
Firstly, in the United Kingdom, just as a structural matter, the Prime Minister along with her Cabinet, are directly accountable to Parliament (and arguably to the Sovereign). The Prime Minster leads the majority in the House of Commons (the leader of the party with a majority therein is effectively the British definition of "Prime Minister") and exercises ultimate executive authority by proxy through the legal authority of the Sovereign (whose political role has been effectively eliminated in this proxying fashion). One ignores at one's own peril the direct accountability this architecture imposes on the Prime Minister and her Cabinet vis-à-vis Parliament.
Prime Minister's Question time also represents an accountability mechanism between the Prime Minister and her own party almost as directly as it serves this role for the opposition parties. It is, in fact, considered very bad form to issue overly "softballish" questions during Prime Minister's Question time, and such pandering would likely be booed by both sides of the chamber... loudly. Indeed, the first indication that a Prime Minister may be on her way out is likely to be found first in soft, and then increasingly rousing rumblings from the Prime Minister's own side of the House.
Second, the parliamentary structure in the United Kingdom is shot through with this sort of debate driven integration in a number of other places. The Prime Minister participates directly in debate on legislation in the House of Commons, for instance. Thatcher's famous "No, no, no..." speech in 1990 is among the more famous examples thereof (the fireworks really get going around 2:20 in).
Among other things, this means that there is a particular institutional infrastructure to support a rather significant level of almost raucous debate. The regular scolding by the Speaker of the House for "Order! I said order!" for instance. One finds it hard to imagine finding an appropriately non-partisan moderator in the person of, say, Nancy Pelosi. And holding this example up next to the likes of Betty Boothroyd is just beyond the pale of contemplation. Perhaps Jim Lehrer could be drafted to fill the role, but one suspects the results would be equally disastrous.
Real and unfettered debate of the sort that would even approach the mildest examples of Prime Minister's Question time would be of an aggressive character quite alien to an American audience, a body far more comfortable watching candidates for executive office engage in rhetorical fisticuffs with other candidates for executive office during carefully choreographed campaign debates that represent, for example, the culmination of three weeks of negotiations over the placement of studio lighting, before slouching down into a warm, plush chair behind the Resolute desk, comfortably insulated from televised, interactive debate with just about anyone for at least another four years.
What, for example, is one to make of the fact that, in the United States, simply delivering campaign rhetoric, even from the safe remove of broadcast video, that might contain invective even half as caustic as that encountered on a weekly basis during Prime Minister's Question time entails the anguished advice and debate of about $250,000 in political consultant hours on the wisdom of "going negative?"
It is telling that the State of the Union permits no greater feedback to the First Presenter than cheering and no greater expression of disdain than polite golf-clapping. In this light it is not particularly surprising that Supreme Court Justices are expected to display, for the duration, a narcotic vacancy so complete (even when, as recently, they are directly accosted by the speaker) that even the most modest reaction is cause for scandal. So extensive is the horror evoked by the possibility that the judiciary may be seen to affront the will of the executive through interaction it is no wonder that several Justices simply refuse to attend the proceedings any longer.
Even a distant and casual encounter with concepts like the Greek and Roman trias politica or the executive, legislative, and judicial tripartite bestowed unto the Enlightenment by Baron de Montesquieu will suggest the recognition that requiring much in the way of real challenge-response interaction from the executive by the legislature is likely to present real constitutional problems. Apparently, the framers of the Constitution of the United States considered this particular species of principle weighty enough to devote a significant portion of the founding document to it.
True, some sort of... mutually consensual interaction or question and answer forum (like Obama graciously agreeing to submit himself to House republicans on camera) might fly for a period of time. But as soon as one begins to televise such events regularly and once they begin to lean just slightly against the executive, you can be quite certain that "separation of powers" and "executive privilege" will suddenly become exceedingly popular phrases again. It doesn't take a Montesquieuesque grasp of political science to see that the instant machinations are pure artifice and facade. Stage construction which, the moment it becomes much more, will be discarded like so much fractured particle board.
When an institution like the executive branch can be seen to doggedly employ arguments asserting separation of powers to avoid even submitting videotaped answers in response to Congressional queries pursuant to a potentially criminal investigation on the grounds that it might damage the privilege of future executives, well, it is hard to imagine weekly, direct questioning and cross examination of even a law professor-grandmaster debate champion by what amounts to a pack of mostly current or former lawyers lasting very long.
Also easily forgotten is the fact that real debate of the non-contrived variety is exceedingly time consuming and labor intensive. Margaret Thatcher regularly spent eight to ten hours preparing for fifteen minutes of weekly Prime Minister's Question time. It is, quite frankly, hard to credit that sort of weekly commitment from the executive branch in the United States, that is, before endless complaints referring to the need to "get back to the business of governing" begin to issue forth, first from the likes of Robert Gibbs just in front of progressively higher elements of the administration and finally the executive himself.
It is not particularly shocking that even a small victory in the form of a new, but not particularly compelling way for Obama to chalk up some modest television ratings might find itself so desperately seized upon by an executive so badly in need of a win. Any win. Be this as it may, those expecting that merely dropping a dispatch box in front of a masterful Law Professor cum debate champion and labeling it "Obama's Question Time" will somehow salvage an administration facing near total, abject political failure with respect to about every policy initiative it has stamped with any sort of priority label may be in for a rude surprise. Augustus also understood the importance of public gladiatorial games as distraction, but he was fortunate enough to live in an age where it would be difficult to overestimate the thirst his subjects had for the public spilling of blood.
- 1. Setty, Sudha, "The President's Question Time: Power, Information, and the Executive Credibility Gap," Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy, Volume 17, Issue 247 (2008).
- 2. Ambinder, Marc "Obama's Question Time: An Amazing Moment," The Atlantic (January 29, 2010).