- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 27, 2005

British politics have some particularly interesting traditions. As we know, there is no written constitution, and prime ministers face mandatory “question time” in front of Parliament. Members of the opposition can use that time to pepper the prime minister with all manner of questions. Given the level of debate and discourse, those proceedings are often useful in better understanding the policies and intentions of the government.

Clearly, no such institution exists here. Presidents have news conferences, photo opportunities and scripted interviews where they may or may not choose to answer questions. Daily press briefings in the White House and the various departments provide what is usually pretty toned down material and often “spin,” although the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s briefings have tended to be interesting exceptions to these rules.

So with debate raging over Iraq, the war on terror, responses to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and many other issues, how about a real question time for the president? And if the chief executive is to bear his breast, so to speak, should there be question time for Congress? To extend the idea, is there any reason why the Supreme Court should be exempt? Hearing the justices respond to questions about cases and decisions would be of real public interest.

Of course, none of this will ever happen. In the first place, where would the president hold question time? He isn’t about to place himself in front of Congress, most likely on prime time television, and suffer the slings and arrows of either dissidents of his own or the opposition party. And inviting members of Congress to the White House for a public inquisition of the president is an idea whose time will never come.

It is tempting to imagine question time in Congress, where the majority and minority leaders and chairman and ranking members of every committee would undergo some form of inquiry by colleagues. This would be time consuming and potentially very embarrassing as the temptation to use question time to score debating points and make the other side look foolish would likely prove irresistible. Of course, there are soliloquies in the Senate and debates in the House, but these are not the same as parliamentary question time. And members spend much of their time with constituents, answering questions and conducting town hall meetings, as well as in hearings.

Finally, what about the Supreme Court? Under what conditions would justices ever hold press conferences and publicly discuss specific cases and decisions? And who would ask the questions? Members of Congress, cabinet officers or others? Hence, question time for the brethren, however interesting to ponder, is also not going to happen.

Members of the Executive Branch routinely testify before Congress. Indeed, the amount of time certain cabinet officers spend on the Hill is often excessive. For example, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff has some seven-dozen committees and subcommittees to whom his department reports. Question time there is not wanting and clearly must be reduced if only to allow the secretary some slack to manage his large, and now very overworked, department.

Given the political, logistical and even legal obstacles to imposing some form of question time on the president, Congress and the high court — protecting executive privilege for one — a better question is whether the nation would benefit from this type of interaction and exchange and, if so, under what conditions? So here is an idea to kick around. Question time for Congress and the court is probably neither necessary nor appropriate. But that is not the case for the chief executive. During past presidential debates, the town hall meeting format has brought both candidates in contact with “average” Americans and their specific queries. To some degree in speeches and visits, presidents have engaged in milder forms of this type of give and take.

With many critical issues — from the nuclear intentions of North Korea and Iran to the raft of domestic matters of economic, financial and social importance — a regularized series of townhall-type meetings, televised nationally, would provide a useful opportunity for the president to respond to the public at large. Some presidents — such as John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — would have found these settings ideal to project their plans and personalities; others perhaps less so.

While transplanting question time wholesale into the United States would never be as easy as importing Britain’s great game of golf, having presidents consent to attend townhall-style meetings on some basis would bring benefits and a certain discipline to the answering of the tougher questions through these exchanges. And such meetings would afford presidents useful platforms and bully pulpits from which to inform and motivate the nation. Maybe this idea’s time has finally come.

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