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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.
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
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
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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