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.”