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Monday, May 19, 2008
Credit where credit is due. John McCain proposes that if he is elected President, he will make himself available for questions from the Congress in the style of the Prime Minister's Questions in the UK.

Anyone who has seen the unlikely combination of insult and gentility, theater and policymaking that is the Prime Minister's Questions in the United Kingdom knows that, if nothing else, seeing the President answer questions from Congress would be very entertaining. But it is actually much more than this. Question Time is a form of accountability, a concept that has been sorely lacking the past 8 years. Yes, Bush has occasional press conferences, but political opponents ask better and tougher questions than the press. Plus, they ask questions on a wider variety of issues; the press might ask Bush 8 questions on the Iraq War, 3 on gas prices, and 2 on the 2008 presidential campaign, but during Question Time, Gordon Brown or his predecessors have had to faced questions such as the price of cattle in Jersey or traffic abatement in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. It forces the Prime Minister to study and to learn more about the country. I would bet that whatever one thinks about his ideology, Bush's Katrina screw-ups would have been less likely to happen if he had faced an occasional question about levee policy in Louisiana or the state of FEMA readiness.

This is not to say that Question Time is a panacea. Lots of time is eaten up with stupid questions. The MP's belonging to the same party as the Prime Minister ask softball questions that allow the PM to trumpet this or that success. Further, Britain's parliamentary system, with its third and fourth parties, helps immensely; Gordon Brown gets attacked from the left (by Liberal Democrats) as well as the right (by Tories), and also has to answer questions from Ulster Unionists regarding Northern Ireland. (It is unfortunate that Sinn Fein can't get over it's objection to the oath of office promising loyalty to the United Kingdom, or there would be a competing view about Northern Irish politics also represented in the body.)

Here, it would likely be the case that a Democratic president would be attacked from the right but not the left, and vice-versa. Most Democrats in Congress were far to the left of Bill Clinton, for instance, but they weren't about to launch attacks against the guy given his capacity and willingness to retaliate politically against his critics.

Nonetheless, I have to believe that Question Time would still be a distinct improvement in terms of oversight in American politics. Plus, it might have a civic benefit as well-- it is tremendously entertaining, much more so than a presidential press conference or State of the Union speech. It might even become a hit on television (C-SPAN's reruns of British Question Times draw a cult following). Seeing President John McCain face off against Senator Hillary Clinton on health care policy might draw lots of viewers.

All and all, not a reason for a liberal to vote for McCain, but a praiseworthy proposal nonetheless.


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