Prime Minister's Question Time:

When I get the chance, I like to watch Prime Minister's question time on C-Span. For readers who may not know, Prime Minister's question time is a longstanding institution in the British House of Commons where the PM is required to answer questions put to him by the leader of the opposition and other members of Parliament.

I don't know whether Prime Minister's Question Time actually improves the quality of British government. But it's vastly more interesting than the deadly dull floor speeches made by members of the US Congress. In addition, I get the strong impression that top-level British MPs on average are far more knowledgeable about public policy than US senators and representatives. While many of the questions put to the prime minister are just thinly veiled rhetorical attacks, many others are actually substantive, and the British prime ministers I have seen (especially Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair) usually know enough to give detailed and even thoughtful answers. There is also, I think, some symbolic value in forcing the chief executive to publicly answer questions put to him by his political opponents.

I don't necessarily advocate instituting a similar practice in the US. Among other things, it would probably require a constitutional amendment to do so. And the benefit of passing such an amendment probably wouldn't be worth the cost. But it sure is fun to watch.

Larry Sheldon:
They are entertaining (and otherwise useful) to watch.

But I don't think there is any parallel structure in the US.

In the Parliament (I think), the Prime Minister is reporting to his (or her) employers.

The closest analog would be the Speaker answering to the whole House.
7.13.2008 10:29pm
I get the strong impression that top-level British MPs on average are far more knowledgeable about public policy than US senators and representatives.

The amount of "good government" that emanates from the British Parliament doesn't support this view - or at least, if the MPs "know a lot" about public policy, this knowledge doesn't translate into effective public policy.
7.13.2008 10:45pm
I don't think the analogy is that far off, and is certainly nothing like House to Speaker of the House. The Prime Minister operates with greater independence from Parliament than would otherwise seem obvious on the face of the arrangement. This also runs in the opposite way as well. Parliament is no rubber stamp for the Prime Minister. You can see this relationship in full bloom during Question Time as many Labour MPs mock and grill the Prime Minister despite being of the same party.

This very same thing is hard to imagine here where Congressmen line up along partisan lines to greet or upbraid mere witnesses before a hearing. It is difficult to imagine any Republican congressman would ever sarcastically criticize the President to his face. Nope. Instead, we would expect Republicans (and Democrats when there was a Democrat as President) to deliver a ten minute soliloquy on the President's impeccable taste in ties and barbecue, only to finish the an equally long and passioned encomium as to his virtue, strength under pressure, and generosity of spirit.
7.13.2008 10:49pm
Thomas B. (www):
John McCain has agreed to submit to a "Question Time" before Congress should he win the Presidency.
7.13.2008 10:57pm
Robert S. Porter (mail) (www):
While it might be sometimes "interesting", in general the parliamentary system ends up sounding like bickering children who continunally talk over each other. I'm not going to argue which system is inherently better, but the Westminster system is most certainly less civil.
7.13.2008 10:59pm
I think it would be great to have this type of practice here, and while I've pretty much decided to vote for Obama, if McCain pledged to do something like this it would really show that he was serious about open government and I would almost certainly vote for him.
7.13.2008 11:00pm
Un Canadien Errant:
Christopher Hitchens discussed this in Slate:
7.13.2008 11:25pm
Thanks for the link UCE, it's interesting, and promising that McCain has brought this up. I'm not entirely sure how seriously to take this type of off-hand comment, but it's certianly a start, and something to think about
7.13.2008 11:30pm
Agree with RSPorter. I've seen some from Gordon Brown's like watching 12 year olds in suits. They tend to stop just short of asking the PM to explain why no one likes him and he smells funny.
7.13.2008 11:30pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
The questions may have been largely useless (little worse than a US press conference, tho) but it was amazing to see a PM field them, as opposed to reading a speech from teleprompter or giving a memorized sound bite.

Remember one where T. Blair gives an answer ending on something like "To do that would be sheer insanity. Speaking of which..." as he pointed to the next questioner.
7.14.2008 12:26am
I cannot see why it would require a constitutional amendment to institute such a practice, any more than it required a constitutional amendment to institute the current practice of weekly radio addresses by the President and opposition party. The major advantage would be increased likelihood of compliance (although, as the Bush administration has so vividly demonstrated, enshrining certain principles in the Constitution is no guarantee that those principles will not be violated), but there are other ways of achieving that goal. The real problem is inertia; if a President sat a precedent by submitting to questions by Congress at regular intervals, it might be a politically unpalatable proposition for a succeeding President to abandon the practice.
7.14.2008 12:34am
Ilya Somin:
I cannot see why it would require a constitutional amendment to institute such a practice, any more than it required a constitutional amendment to institute the current practice of weekly radio addresses by the President and opposition party.

Sure, the president could do it voluntarily without an amendment. But it's highly unlikely that he would do so without being required to. And instituting a law compelling him would probably require a constitutional amendment.
7.14.2008 12:38am
CDU (mail) (www):
I find it interesting that nobody has brought up the obvious American parallel: testimony before congressional committees by executive branch officials. We may not have the President himself going before congress, but we do have the officials who are actually executing public policy getting grilled by he legislative branch on a regular basis.
7.14.2008 1:59am
Tom Round (mail):
I don't know if you necessarily need a Constitutional amendment. (What would it say? In particular, what sanctions, if any, would it impose on a President who was either wilfully absent or who attended and misled?) You would, however, need some institutional inccentive for the President to attend.

In Britain (and Canada, and Australia), one very big carrot that entices the PM into the parliamentary "bearpit" is that Question Time cuts both ways. A weak or vulnerable Government can be dealt a death blow by a determined and focused Opposition asking the right questions (as occurred in Australia in 1975 and Britain in 1997). But, on the other hand, a well-brief PM can make mincemeat of her or his Opposition and show them to be divided or confused. In Australia, Paul Keating (Treasurer 1983-91, Prime Minister 1992-96) and Peter Costello (Treasurer 1996-2007) are widely regarded as being powerful and effective parliamentary debaters.

In the US, the President (a) might not even be a possible candidate at the next election (half of the US elections in the past 2 decades) and (b) even if he is, won't know who will lead the [o]pposition party for about seven-eighths of the presidential term. There's no point Bush going mano a mano with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi on the Hill if everyone knows the next election won't involve either of those three. Despite attempts by some Congressional leaders to function as de facto party Leader of the Loyal Opposition (Dirksen in the 1960s, Gingrich in the 1990s), the only ones who reach the top job get there by accident, via the Vice Presidency (LBJ, Ford, and Bush I - sorta).

Thus in the US, this aspect of an adversarial two-party system is outsourced to other fora instead - as noted, Congressional Committee grilling of cabinet (and other administration) officials officials; presidential press conferences (vale Tony Snow); and in particular, the Presidential debates in the last few months of an election year.

I suppose if you really wanted to tempt the President into Congress, you could give her or him a certain bundle of votes (5 in the House, 1 in the Senate) but stipulate they have to be cast personally. However, this would take a const amendment, and would distract the president from throwing the first baseball of the season, bringing peace to the Middle East, etc.
7.14.2008 2:29am
You could always shout questions at him during the State of the Union Address and see what happens. It'd be more interesting than hearing "The state of the Union is Strong" for the millionth time.
7.14.2008 4:11am
Why would it require a constitutional amendment? The constitution already requires the president to "from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union." Now, that doesn't say he has to show up every week and answer their questions. But from a textual perspective, that is a perfectly plausible way of implementing that command.
7.14.2008 5:05am
Lorra (mail) (www):
i am dam sure that is fun to watch
7.14.2008 7:13am
AndrewK (mail):
We could use a similar institution in the U.S., if only to shed sunlight on the technique of the loaded question. Congress and the news media are given far too much credit for the loaded questions they ask, and a PQT here might make the American public more educated consumers of propaganda.
7.14.2008 8:00am
bjr03 (mail):
Mike Myers and others also had a good turn at the event on several (or at least one) SNL skit.
7.14.2008 9:01am
Stosh2 (mail):
I once expressed admiration for Question Time to an English friend. He tut-tutted it saying it was a well managed stage show.
7.14.2008 9:28am
snoey (mail):
It's not so much a matter of law as of political culture.

Questions are asked, either via press conference or via surrogates at hearings. The difference that I can see is that the PM feels constrained to give an answer that has a more than tangential relationship to the question, or at least will be called on it when he doesn't.
7.14.2008 9:31am
Mike Myers and others also had a good turn at the event on several (or at least one) SNL skit.

Hilarious stuff in that one too.

Michael Shersby: [ seemingly distracted ] How can.. the Prime minister.. support a law.. that makes it illegal for people.. who.. [ gets to the real point he's been fidgeting with ] ..What I'm trying to say is.. Oasis rules!

Betty Boothroyd: [ sternly ] Mr. Shersby!! You've been warned seven times this month to stop bringing up Oasis!

Michael Shersby: But is not Oasis the greatest British band since the Beatles? Can we not vote on this?!

Betty Boothroyd: Enough! Enough!! No votes will be taken on the subject of Oasis! Question, Mr. Simon Coombs!

The whole transcript is here:
7.14.2008 9:31am
Houston Lawyer:
I'm sure it's much more fun to watch when you have a Margaret Thatcher on your side responding. Our pols would end up doing things like causing a run on a bank.
7.14.2008 9:32am
Intelligent questions in Congress? Our Congress? And what would be the point of unintelligent ones?
7.14.2008 9:36am
John Jenkins (mail):
One could reasonably argue that Article II, ยง 3 gives Congress the authority to require the President to submit to inquiries regarding the State of the Union "from time to time." If Congress decides that "from time to time" is monthly rather than yearly, no court is ever likely to hear the case (it would be seen as a non-justiciable political question) and, if Congress were even reasonably popular (i.e. let's not try it right now), the President would have a hard time ducking the call.
7.14.2008 9:43am
Sudha Setty:
McCain's suggestion to institute a Question Time in the U.S. is a good one. Although I agree that there's a lot of sophomoric one-upmanship that occurs during the PQT, at least it offers some accountability and dialogue between the Prime Minister and House of Commons. This is particularly necessary given the Westminister structure, where the Parliament is necessarily politically aligned with the Prime Minister. The PQT affords the opposition party a chance to be publicly heard and to question government activities in a face-to-face dialogue.

In the U.S., when both houses of Congress are politically aligned with the President the same type of public accountability isn't currently available. You can't have oversight hearings and investigations into executive branch activity unless congressional committees have the political will to do so. In times of unified government (e.g., 1992-1994, 2000-2006), that doesn't happen often enough. Hence, the need for a PQT in the U.S. as well(as a matter of full disclosure, I wrote an article advocating such a measure:
7.14.2008 10:01am
The Senate was actually in Democratic hands for most of the first two years of the Bush presidency. Remember "Jumping" Jim Jeffords?
7.14.2008 10:03am
Steve M. (mail):
While a constituional amendment would be required to force the President to attend and participate over his objection, it isn't immediately clear to me why a statute couldn't bind a
President (and only that President) to attend if he agreed to do so ("the President shall affirm any obligation to attend, and if he shall do so then he shall be obliged to attend each month for the remainer of that term") or why a statutory framework couldn't be designed to encourage him to attend.

The problem with the former concept is that several separation of powers doctrines seem to indicate that a statute cannot compel the President's attendance at a session of Congress, although I think this is less clear than others seem to think. (I accept it as unproblematic that the respective Houses may compel the President to observe their rules should he choose to attend, but that puts the cart before the horse -- we want to know whether they may compel his attendance.) Under normal circumstances, statutes may clearly require the President to provide the Congress with information not protected by the so-called "executive privilege.". (I don't mean to question the existenc of *some* sort of privilege, only to highlight that its extent is vague and poorly-defined.)

But to compel the President to appear in either House's chambers -- where the Houses will have physical authority over his person -- is another matter entirely. A statute providing for a bonus each time the President attends is for this reason more appealing, but Article II, clause 7 would prohibit any bonus payments that "increase() or diminish()" the President's salary "during the Period for which he shall have been elected." Since the statute would provide that the President would make X without appearing and then X plus bonus after, I think it fairly clearly forbidden. But what if the statute required the President-elect to choose, before his inauguration, whether to accept the normal salary or a higher salary that is conditioned on his accepting any obligation to appear for question time? That eliminates the clause 7 concern, I think, and if the President decides to skip question time after having accepted the obligation (for a higher salary!) he will have a very weak Article II argument. And it will look very bad.

Just thinking out loud, so to speak.
7.14.2008 10:03am
Steve M.:
That should read: "conditioned on his accepting an obligation to appear for question time."
7.14.2008 10:06am
The Canadian Parliament (aka Parlement du Canada) also has a Question Hour which, on the few occasions when I have watched it, has been something along the lines of what the British version would be like it it were held in a bar. Even it, however, is more substantive than most congressional hearings.
7.14.2008 10:43am
rarango (mail):
I enjoy the question times I have seen, primarily because of the political show and sense of humor and ability to respond quickly to hostile questions. I think it would lapse into even more of a stage show were it implemented in the US Congress: I mean, does anyone expect Joe Biden to even qet a question out before his time elapses?

The mail issue I have with congressional committee testimony is that the honorable members always get to review the transcripts and make corrections that appear in the published edition of the Congressional Record.

I suspect that our committee hearings are the equivalent of the question hour although perhaps less entertaining--neither is likely to result in substantive policy formulation.
7.14.2008 10:43am
Mad Max:
A question time featuring Dubya would be too damn painful to listen to. I can't even listen to him stammer out a prepared speech without turning off the radio in disgust.
7.14.2008 11:37am
Congress would never consent to being addressed as an equal-have you ever watched the committee hearings, with members who are incapable of asking a question who never bother to listen to the answer.
7.14.2008 11:57am
The institution of "Question Time" serves a very important purpose: it is a public display of the supremacy of Parliament, and specifically the Commons. Since the PM is appointed by the monarch and as he is nominally only directly answerable to the monarch, forcing the PM (and other ministers) to attend sessions of Parliament and answer questions makes it clear that the people are in fact in charge.

For this reason having "Question Time" in the US would be constitutionally suspect even though the President is required to report to Congress "from time to time". It is not clear to me that the president should be allowed do this even if he volunteers.
7.14.2008 12:27pm
CDU's comment is intriguing in light of Cheney's recent refusal to respond to a Congressional subpoena -- apparently it isn't clear that this power exists.

In any event, I've seen this too and often marvel at it and wish we had it here. If anything, it gives an impression (1) of accountability between branches and (2) that the people you elected actually have some competence on what they are legislating. Given the current state of affairs, I often question whether either of these things exist in the U.S. So, Congress and the President should embrace this sort of thing, because it would give the impression of knowledge and accountability without having to go through the annoyance of actually doing so. I'm sure some people would buy into its authenticity, at least for a little while. If people believe reality shows are real, almost certainly they'd think this is.
7.14.2008 1:46pm
Dennis Nicholls (mail):
As mentioned by others before me, the Art. II section 3 requirement that the President "shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union" would appear to cover specific questioning by members of Congress. Otherwise the President could only furnish such "information" he deems appropriate. An annual address is clearly not the only means of satisfying this Constitutional duty.

I wonder how far back "question time" dates. We shouldn't forget that even the office of a "prime minister" doesn't date back indefinately. Even the term "prime minister" at first was a perjorative term, as in "too big for your britches". The sign on the door of #10 Downing St. still reads "first lord of the treasury" IIRC.
7.14.2008 2:30pm
If we had some analogue to the Prime Minister's question time here in the U.S., we would have very different Presidents than we do today. I think such a practice would bode ill for John McCain, and certainly George W. Bush. Many others as well (I'm not trying to jump on Republicans here, though Clinton is one of the few Presidents that probably would have been fine with this. Hilary less so.) I think there are negatives and possibly does divert the skill set away from what makes a good American President (would George Washington have been skilled at this?) but I agree that I think the practice would do us much good.
7.14.2008 2:53pm
might we ask the people of england if the little charade makes them feel their government is more or less accountable to them-I suspect the response would be that it is irrelevant. can someone state to the contrary based on any actual study or poll?
7.14.2008 3:03pm
Curt Fischer:

Lior: Having "Question Time" in the US would be constitutionally suspect even though the President is required to report to Congress "from time to time". It is not clear to me that the president should be allowed do this even if he volunteers.

"Should be allowed"? By whom? Your argument that QT in the UK serves to demonstrate the sovereignty of the people makes no sense to me if the US President, empowered by being elected by the people, can't voluntarily submit to a QT evem if he wants to.
7.14.2008 3:14pm
ruralcounsel (mail) (www):
Perhaps one of the most useful components is that it prevents a political leader from being overly insulated from criticism to his or her face. I think that might be a valuable and humbling experience.

The British system has been impressive (despite the comments that claim it is orchestrated) in the depth of knowledge required for such quick-on-their-feet responses. Seems more substantive than any of the garbage we see, say, during campaign debates. And a lot less plastic ...

Besides, anything that offers up a politician for ridicule and harassment can't be all bad. No matter what side of the question they are on.
7.14.2008 4:07pm
EIDE_Interface (mail):

might we ask the people of england if the little charade makes them feel their government is more or less accountable to them-I suspect the response would be that it is irrelevant. can someone state to the contrary based on any actual study or poll?
7.14.2008 2:03pm

Good, admitting that it's all a charade is the first step towards reforming our government. 1 down, 299,999,999 to go.
7.14.2008 4:14pm
Curt: the people of the UK are not sovereign. The monarch is. Notionally, the PM serves at the pleasure of the monarch.

In the UK, the PM is not answerable to Parliament. He answers questions because he chooses to, and this recognizes the de-facto supremacy of Parliament.

Similarly, the President has his own source of legitimacy separate from Congress. Thus the President can choose to come to Congress and answer their questions, but he cannot be compelled to do so. Like the UK, this would partly be a good government practice, and partly be a clear statement of executive submission to legislative oversight.

Following the excesses of the current administration in the opposite direction, I think this would be a very welcome development. Nevertheless, an argument can be made that a President should not be setting a precedent by making himself personally answerable to Congress rather than to the people, a precedent that his successors would find it difficult to reverse should they have different views on the matter.
7.14.2008 4:24pm
Curt Fischer:

Lior @ 11:27am: forcing the PM (and other ministers) to attend sessions of Parliament and answer questions makes it clear that the people are in fact in charge.

Lior @ 3:24pm: the people of the UK are not sovereign.

I guess our difference of opinion boils down to whether "sovereign" is synonymous with "in charge"?? Otherwise, I'm seriously confused. Perhaps my equating of "in charge" with "sovereign" is imprecise, but I don't think the two concepts are that far apart.

As to the rest of your 3:24 argument, I agree that the Congress has no inherent power over the President, other than as specified in the Constitution. But the point I was interested in your earlier post was your questioning that the President might "not be allowed to do [QT] even if he volunteers."

The idea that because one President does something a few times, later Presidents will find it "difficult" to change does not seem a strong argument to me. Do you believe that because all future Presidents will find it difficult to reverse if they have different views on the matter, the President should(n't) wear a flag lapel pin?
7.14.2008 5:17pm
Tom Round (mail):
> 'Even the term "prime minister" at first was a perjorative term, as in "too big for your britches". The sign on the door of #10 Downing St. still reads "first lord of the treasury" IIRC.'

Yes, ironic. "First minister" (from Latin "servant, lesser") is too boastful a term, but "first lord" (even though the PM isn't in the House of Lords) is okay, because... oh, I give up.

One difference between probing by legislative committees and Question Time is that the latter is usually much more focused and coordinated by the Opposition party. Parliamentary rules usually give the main parties' leaders very wide deference in terms of deeming them to speak for their whole party as a bloc. A Labour MP who wants to attack Tony Blair over Iraq, or a Tory MP who wanted to attack John Major over Europe, has less scope to do so than a Sam Nunn or Joe Liebermann would if he chaired a Senate Committee and wanted to attack a Democratic President's Administration over its dovish foreign policy.

Congressional Committee members, especially Chairs, are much more barons with their own fiefdoms. Whereas Westminster party heavies are generals in a more disciplined army.

There are pluses and minuses on both sides. Professor George Winterton (Law, University of New South Wales) wrote a 1986 book on whether and how Australia should become a republic. Before opting for a German-type republic (President elected by Parliament, but keep the PM as real executive leader), he examined proposals for Australia to adopt a US-type executive Presidency. I have summarised his observations above: he ended up concluding that the US and Westminster systems were approximately equal, over the long term, in their capacity to keep the executive under control, and that there was some danger in moving from one to the other because you might lose the accountability mechanisms of one without gaining those of the other. (Eg, a British or Australian executive President would face a legislature with much more tightly disciplined parties than a US president does).
7.14.2008 6:27pm
Harriet Miers's Law Partner:
I can't find the backup, but I think George Washington went before the Senate during one of its debates to either ratify a treaty or confirm a nominee and apparently was so disgusted he left. No president has repeated his move since.
7.14.2008 7:02pm
Not long after the US went into Iraq with the UK, I found an article that addressed this very issue. They compared Bush's inelegant and clumsy adhoc responsiveness, whereas Blair was much more at east fielding questions without preparation.

A NATION AT WAR: THE TV WATCH; Ally on the Battlefield, And Before the Cameras
7.14.2008 7:32pm
pal_sch (mail):
One of the more interesting points about Question Time is that it is one of the few times that the House is full during the normal working week. In a standard session, most MP's will not bother coming in unless there is a vote, and even then not always. For Question Time, virtually every MP in the country is in the same room.

And that room was designed for a far smaller Parliament than the one that exists today. While it was rebuilt after the war, Churchill insisted on maintaining the small size, deliberately so not everyone would fit. People are forced together on benches that shouldn't fit anywhere near that number, and the two sides are separated by the lengths of two swords. Makes for a heated debate session.
7.14.2008 7:59pm
Barry P. (mail):
Former Canadian Prime Minister John Turner referred to Question Period as "bullshit theatre", which it is. The questions are exchanged in advance in writing so that the respondent can have a witty answer ready; there is precious little extemporaneous policy knowledge or "thinking on ones' feet" being displayed.
7.14.2008 10:36pm

The questions are exchanged in advance in writing so that the respondent can have a witty answer ready

At least in the British House, this isn't entirely accurate. MPs may, but are not required to, submit their questions ahead of time. Thus, friendly questions are usually submitted in advance, while hostile ones, usually from the opposition, aren't.

Sometimes even hostile questions are given in advance though, especially when the questioner is legitimately asking for information and not just attempting to score rhetorical points. The Tory MP I worked for did this once. His question related to the lack of government action in a specific situation; he provided the question in advance so that PM Blair could have a useful, substantive response ready. It also caused the government to actually look into the situation (to get an answer ready) when it might have otherwise ignored it altogether. A win-win, really.
7.15.2008 1:54am