President Obama's televised q&a with House Republican leaders last week has started a movement. Petitioners hoping for repeats of the president's peformance at the GOP House Issues Conference in Baltimore are collecting signatures at demandquestiontime.com. The roster of name-brand signers includes some very impressive people.
Demand Question Time demands more like this:
America could use more of this — an unfettered and public airing of political differences by our elected representatives. So we call on President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader John Boehner to hold these sessions regularly — and allow them to be broadcast and webcast live and without commercial interruption, sponsorship or intermediaries. We also urge the President and the Republican Senate caucus to follow suit. And we ask the President and the House and Senate caucuses of his own party to consider mounting similar direct question-and-answer sessions. We will ask future Presidents and Congresses to do the same.
Demand Question Timers, I am with you in spirit, but not in reality. Question Time, or more precisely, "Prime Minister's Questions," is a habit of a parliamentary system based on majoritarian consensus, in which the head of state is a monarch. The U.S. government is a republic built on divided branches, in which the head of state is a temporary official. There's nothing wrong with conflating the two in an informal way, but why should anybody believe this will improve Washington, D.C.'s cycle of making and enforcing laws? While it's true that the exchange was "substantive, civil and candid," government is not about candor, civility or substance. No minds were changed in this debate, nor should they have been, because the president and the Congress are, by order of the Constitution, natural opponents.
Nobody came away from the q&a with any new information or insight into the Health Care Reform debate, or the stimulus, or any other topic other than the loveliness of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's family. That all these talented and persuasive people did a vigorous job of defending their positions is not surprising, but were we somehow lacking in vigorous defenses of their positions before?
Obama and the Republicans over the last year have not lacked means, motive and opportunity to get their respective messages out. Getting these messages out is the dedicated task of vast media and public relations machines that continue to grow, sucking dry the marrow of our nation.
The Constitution provides an avenue for the kind of exchange Demand Question Time is seeking. It takes place once a year and is called the State of the Union address. There's nothing in the Constitution stating that the president can't field questions during the State of the Union address, and if somebody puts that in a petition, I'll sign. (It would be an improvement on the current format, in which the Leader is encouraged to pontificate at Syrian length, with the rest of us left only to gauge the volume of the applause.) Meanwhile, Question Time for the president makes no more sense than Question Time for the queen.
This is not anglophobia! I do love Prime Minister's Questions: