Professorial Skills Cry Out for Obama Q&A Sessions

Barack Obama is the best-known college professor president since Woodrow Wilson. The professor side is a core part of Obama, and he has shown that he is a master educator in chief. His quasi-State of the Union message last week, along with his Q&A with Members of Congress and others at his fiscal responsibility summit, were occasions not just to give speeches or answer questions, not just to make political points, but to educate Americans about the problems we face and the solutions he proposes.

This is a great quality for a president, or anybody, to have. Obama is far more engaging than the wooden and somewhat humorless Wilson; as his former students or indeed any college students could tell us, he is far more skilled at conveying information and insights than the typical jargon-driven prof. And as I suggested in last week's column, he is perfectly equipped to use this skill in a new way for a president or a presidential (as opposed to parliamentary) system: through a variation of the parliamentary question period.

For one hour every month, in prime time, the president should go into the well of the House, or onto the floor of the Senate, in alternating sessions.

Of course, I am not the first person to suggest a question period in the United States. Let me start with a tip of the hat to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who said in May of last year that if he were elected president, he would "ask Congress to grant me the privilege of coming before both Houses to take questions and address criticism, much the same as the prime minister of Great Britain appears regularly before the House of Commons."

In 1990, I voiced support for a proposal introduced by then-Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.) to create a question period in the House, albeit mostly for Cabinet members and not the president. Actually, as Matthew Glassman of the Congressional Research Service has noted in a terrific report on question periods and Congress, the issue was raised in the 1st Congress, and periodically since then, by people as varied as William Howard Taft, Estes Kefauver, Walter Mondale and Jimmy Carter. None of the proposals went anywhere, in part because of Congressional opposition out of fear that it would dilute Congress' independence and devalue the unique role of the House floor.

Interestingly, most of the proposals in the past tried to follow the thrust of the British parliamentary model, which devotes most of its time during the week to questions for ministers, with only a modest focus on the prime minister.

How would it work? It would have to be a hybrid. Most of the British question time is based on questions submitted days in advance, giving the government representatives time to formulate their answers (many of the questions have to do with constituency matters, so time in advance is necessary.) But the prime minister's questions, which includes some element of advance submissions, also includes an open period for follow-ups and in effect spontaneous inquiries. In Canada and some other parliamentary countries, the free flow and spontaneity is more the norm.

Here is my proposal: For one hour every month, in prime time, the president would go into the well of the House, or onto the floor of the Senate, in alternating sessions. The first half-hour would consist of questions submitted by lawmakers in advance to the Speaker and House Minority Leader or Senate Majority and Minority Leaders; the leaders would choose the questions in alternating fashion, sharing them in advance with the president.

For the second half-hour, questioners would be determined from among the rank-and-file Members of each chamber by lot. Their queries would not be submitted in advance. Questioners would be limited to one minute, answers to two minutes, and each questioner would have the option of one 30-second follow-up.

Why do it? For one thing, it would bring tremendous focus and public attention. Some of that attention would be the prospect of a confrontation, or to see if someone can trip up the president. But a good deal of the attention would be because questions from elected representatives directly to the president would have a gravity that questions from journalists do not.

But attention alone is not a rationale. What would make this work, I believe, is that it would amplify the remarkable qualities Obama has as a teacher. His ability to take the questions and use them to educate voters and Members alike would make this tool a truly valuable one. At the same time, it would bring a discipline to the questioners, especially those from the minority party. If they decided to be junior Rush Limbaughs, and just try to trip up or attack the president, it would likely backfire in all except the narrow echo chamber precincts on cable, in print and in blogs. It would be a great opportunity, in prime time, to use questions to frame the minority position on issues as a counterpoint to the president, adding to the educational value.

A question hour of this sort could enhance both branches, giving many Members of Congress time in the spotlight and a chance to engage in fruitful, two-way dialogue with the president, and giving the president a chance to engage Congress and the American public in a fresh way. Why not give it a try?

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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