Questions for Question Time

Presidential Q&As may not be the key to better politics

The widespread media enthusiasm that greeted President Obama’s televised Q&A last Friday with Republican congressmen now has an official outlet. On Wednesday, an open letter signed by an ideologically diverse selection of worthies from the journalism and media worlds, and hailing the exchange as “one of the best national political debates in many years,” was published at The letter—which concluded, “It is time to make Question Time a regular feature of our democracy” —is linked to a petition that allows readers to register their support. By Thursday morning, nearly 7,500 had done so.

Though the letter is not explicit on this point, supporters of the effort seem to have a clear model in mind. As noted by David Corn, one of the campaign’s organizers, the phrase “question time” refers to the practice in the Westminster system in which members of parliament are allowed to ask questions of government ministers. (In its best-known incarnation, when the British Prime Minister is at the microphone, the event is referred to as the “Prime Minister’s questions.”) Calls to institute the practice here—which, given the White House’s tepid response, likely aren’t going anywhere—seem to rest on two assumptions: first, that question time is good for journalism, and good for government, in the places it is practiced; second, that it could be transplanted effectively from a parliamentary to a presidential system. Those assumptions may be well-founded, but let’s subject them to some scrutiny.

On the first score—is question time all it’s cracked up to be?—Patrick Hennessy, political editor of the London-based Sunday Telegraph, is a believer. “I do think it’s a good piece of democracy in action,” he said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. “It can be irksome for the incumbent,” he said, but that is in part because it is “a great way of holding them to account very publicly.” Because it is short—thirty minutes, once a week—and accessible, it trains the attention of politicians, reporters, and the politically-minded public on a single event. “It’s the focus of the political week,” he said.

What do journalists get out of it? British politicians sometimes use the guaranteed audience to break news, Hennessy said. And even when they don’t, there’s plenty of drama for reporters to cover. His description of the event was replete with fighting metaphors: “the House of Commons is a great gladiatorial arena”; the Prime Minister, engaging in “cut and thrust,” tries to “turn defense into attack.” This is not the sort of thing that necessarily warms the hearts of good-government types; nor is the fact that, as Hennessy acknowledged, preparing for the battle consumes “a massive amount of time.” Still, he said, putting the nation’s leaders through this ordeal “does provide a sort of civic benefit.”

Hennessy’s description of the event was largely echoed by Martin Kettle, a columnist at the Guardian, who described the Prime Minister’s questions as “a ritual political bloodsport.” Their assessment of its merits, though, was sharply at odds. In Kettle’s view, the practice exacerbates the British system’s inherently adversarial structure—and that’s not a good thing. As class becomes less salient to British politics, and pressure grows for more consensus-building in government, “there’s great [public] dissatisfaction with the constant creation of somewhat artificial dividing lines between the parties,” he said. Question time, if anything, reinforces the old divide. A talented politician like Tony Blair, who was an acknowledged master of the forum, may overcome that tension. But if the goal is, as Wednesday’s open letter put it, political debate that is “educational… substantive, civil and candid,” Kettle said, then “Prime Minister’s question time should not be the model.”

Further, he said, it’s important “to be clear what PMQs is not. It is not forensic. It is not a fact-finding exercise.” (In this he distinguished it from question time with lower-ranking ministers, which is much less adversarial and can be “quite informative.”) And while Hennessy says he couldn’t imagine the British system without question time, Kettle said he does not “think many people would say Britain has better government because of the way that the Prime Minister’s questions operates”—or, for that matter, that Britain has much to brag about at all in terms of government accountability. In fact, while America cribs ideas from the U.K., Kettle, who spent four years as the Guardian’s bureau chief in Washington, now looks back longingly at the oversight authority that can be wielded by congressional committees in the U.S.

That point—about the means for debate, oversight, and engagement that we already have at our disposal—goes to the second issue: whether it makes sense to develop a “question time” equivalent in the U.S. As the political scientist and blogger Jon Bernstein wrote this week, the value of question time in Britain is that the parliamentary system affords very few other tools to the minority party, or even back-benchers of the majority party, to influence political decision-making. As the health care debate has shown, that is not a problem for the U.S. As Bernstein notes, “in Congress, the minority has real opportunities”—and, along with it, a real responsibility—to help make policy. What we need, he writes, is not question time but more presidential press conferences (which have been “sadly neglected” by Obama) and more press attention to meaningful Congressional hearings.

Structure and institutions matter a tremendous amount in politics; more, in fact, than the press is often willing to recognize. But in this case, the eagerness to adopt a foreign institution may be a way to avoid recognizing that the tools for a better politics are in our hands, if only we would choose to use them. “It all goes to show,” Kettle said, “that the grass always seems greener in the other guy’s garden, I suppose.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.