Rand Paul's Filibuster: The Latest Example of Why We Need "President's Questions"


Credit: UK Parliament/Flickr

The recent filibustering of John Brennan's nomination to the CIA by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was not only an entertaining and refreshing change to the usual proceedings on Capitol Hill, it also highlighted a deficiency in the American political system, namely that the president does not appear before legislators to take questions. While Rand Paul's filibuster was an impressive physical and mental feat, I can't help but think some time would have been saved if we somehow managed to introduce some parliamentary combativeness to the proceedings on Capitol Hill.

Every Wednesday at noon the British prime minister appears before the House of Commons to take questions from members of parliament. The leader of the opposition is granted a certain number of questions every session, and the speaker of the House of Commons calls on other members of parliament (who indicate they would like to ask a question by standing). The practice is part of British political culture and provides an element of theater to British politics that despite at times seeming childish does require that the prime minister be prepared to publically defend his government's policies in front of hundreds of unsympathetic colleagues.

Quite how something like this would work in the U.S. I am not entirely sure, but I don't think it is that unreasonable to ask that the president (and if he is away the vice president) appear before a joint session of Congress once a week and take questions for a certain amount of time (in the U.K. it is half an hour). Who would get to call upon senators or congressman could be potentially tricky. In the U.K the speaker is independent, not a member of a political party, and it is easy to see why Democrats would be upset if John Boehner (R-Ohio) would get to decide on who gets to ask Obama a question. However, it seems to me it would not be that difficult to implement a rule (or custom) that required that an equal number of questions be asked from members of each party.

One of the benefits that I see of introducing President's Questions (while admitting I am no constitutional scholar) is that it could perhaps be implemented under Article 2 Section 3 of the Constitution, which would allow us to introduce some combative politics to Capitol Hill and allow us to replace, diminish, or get rid of the annual State of the Union address.

It would have been refreshing to see Rand Paul ask Obama if he believes that he has the authority to kill American non-combatants on American soil who pose no imminent threat with a drone. How much more refreshing it would be to see Obama defend his policies live on national television after being fielded questions that have not been approved or seen beforehand.

I suppose one of the main obstacles to a Westminster-style question period being introduced into American politics is that it would be impractical given that the House of Representatives and the Senate are separate. However, I can't see why we couldn't just alternate weeks, with the president appearing before the Senate one week and before the House of Representatives the next.

I think it is a shame that American legislators are not given the opportunity to ask the president direct questions. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who seemed upset by Sen. Paul's filibuster, should perhaps suggest that President's Question Time be introduced. After all, he said he would do so if elected president during the 2008 campaign.  

So, readers, what questions would you like to see posed to the president by your representatives, and what rules should govern President's Questions were it to be introduced?

Below is a video of last week's Prime Minister's Questions:

Click here to see another video that highlights some of the more humorous recent exchanges at Prime Minister's Questions.