Question Time: Should the US Adopt the UK Provision?

Perhaps the only brutally honest event taking place in politics the world over is the UK Prime Minister’s Question Time. Known to cause much anxiety for the prime minister, Question Time is a regularly scheduled session during which members of Parliament are able to ask him any question that strikes their fancy; and get this: he has to answer – honestly. Public dishonesty to the country’s representatives indicates incurable partisanship and power-lust and is the surest way to lose re election or face impeachment.

Question Time has become increasingly popular over time given its potential for increasing transparency and creating a more deliberative legislative process, but has hit a peak recently due to a change in structure. It used to be that any member of the cabinet could answer unfiltered questions, but now the prime minister is required to answer himself when a question is posed about his daily engagements: official business, meetings with statesmen, conferences and so on. Thus, this question is usually asked first to gain direct engagement with the prime minister. Another enticing rule of Question Time is that once the prime minister answers a question, the members of Parliament are permitted to ask follow-up questions on any topic desired. Now the important question: why not bring this tradition to the United States?

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A group of academics, journalists, and politicians with political affiliations ranging across the spectrum from the far left to the hard right has advocated introducing Question Time, but thus far neither Obama nor Congress have acted. Perhaps there’s reason for this. Now whispered to be “The Teleprompter President,” Obama may not be able to handle answering unfiltered questions. The British prime minister is allowed no prep time, and unlike Obama, who had to use a teleprompter to address a sixth grade class in Virginia, he is not permitted any outside help, nor would he be addressing sixth graders. Members of Congress would be asking the questions, which would give the opposition party the ability to ask tough policy questions, which can publicly expose policy flaws and reveal areas in which legislation can be improved. Question Time is not strictly negative, though, and can also be used to alleviate Congress’s reservations concerning pending legislation.

Obama’s presentation requires a great deal of preparation, actively dodges substantial points of disagreement, and avoids incorporating meaningful Republican policy proposals – witness his “concessions” during the “Health Care Summit” and his failure to address Rep. Ryan’s exposure of the accounting gimmickry used to conceal the cost of the bill.

Bringing Question Time to America would mean that Obama, and all his successors for that matter, would have to stand and openly share knowledge and information about the goings-on of the Oval Office. Not only would this force the president to remain more conscious of issues that the people find most pressing, but it would demystify the behind the-scenes work, hold the president and his cabinet to a higher standard, and help reduce the cult of presidential personality America has witnessed during the tenure of the past few presidents. By adopting Question Time as a regular activity in Washington, Congress might be more pressured to avoid gridlock and forge ahead with positive legislation. The truth is that both sides have questions, and after Obama’s spontaneous exchange with House Republicans in Baltimore on January 29th, people want more conversation and openness.

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Introducing Question Time would be a nice change of pace for American politics; we’re all well-aware of what the “pertinent” problems are, however the opportunity to get answers rarely arises. The president of the United States rarely swims in open water – no matter what his party affiliation. As a televised event, it would allow America to get a peek at just how articulate and educated our elected president and his posse truly are. On top of that, we might get some solid facts for once. Question Time seems like a great idea for Mr. Obama, so why doesn’t he agree and implement it? After all, he’s all about change, right?

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