Sen. John McCain has proposed the adoption of an American version of the Prime Minister Question Session where he would appear before the Senate regularly for unscripted exchanges. I have long advocated such a tradition in the United States and it was the subject of a NPR story.
It is interesting that McCain would propose such a change. Some of us have advocated the change due in part to the alleged incapacity of Ronald Reagan from age. McCain is brilliant in promising that he would not hide behind aides, but would guarantee total transparency in his abilities and views. There is no evidence that McCain is diminished in any respect and his mother has shown how old age does not always reduce one’s mental capacities or cognitive abilities.
Under the English system, the Prime Minister meets for a half of an hour every Wednesday. It is not entirely unscripted. The questions alternate between the parties and the first question is always the same and the answer is basically the same. The first formal question is raised as “Number One, Mr Speaker” and asks for his schedule that day. The Prime Minister replies:
“This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.”
The backbenchers can ask questions by submitting their names on the Order Paper, which are placed in random order to be called upon by the Speaker of the House of Commons. MPs can also seek to be recognized by “catching the eye” of the Speaker by standing and sitting immediately before the Prime Minister gives an answer.
McCain is notably not proposing the use of the House of Representatives as the closest American body to the House of Commons. That would appear a bit too lively and unpredictable. Nevertheless, it would be a welcomed reform.
My interest in the session was sparked during the final Reagan term when it was widely believed that Reagan had greatly diminished capabilities. Indeed, some believe that Reagan was incompetent on occasions. The 25th amendment deals with such allegations of presidential disability poorly. Reagan’s aides were able to shield him from public view, even turning off the lights in the Oval Office when he began to gap during interviews.
In the absence of an amendment to the Constitution on disability and removal, this is one change that would offer some protection for the public by exposing any diminished capacity. Notably both Justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan were shown to be highly diminished through public appearances — triggering calls for their resignations.
George Bush also has shown added reasons for the tradition. His notorious appointment of enablers and sycophants proved to be one of the contributors to the abuses and scandals of his administration. While these sessions would not have likely changed his mind, theywould have forced him to hear dissenting voices. They would guarantee that, at a minimum, he would be forced to deal with questions that were clearly not being asked in the White House. Moreover, with his Administration refused a wide range of documents and information to the legislative branch, it would give Congress a direct avenue to raise such questions and objections.
Finally, as I noted in the NPR interview above, these sessions tend to cut against the notion of an imperil presidency. Prime Ministers are reminded every Wednesday at noon that they are not royals and must be prepared to deal with citizens and their questions.
Tony Blair was obviously the master of such sessions. For the U.S., it would be a great advantage to simply force our presidents out of their controlled environments and off script for one day a week.