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It’s question time for Congress

After President Obama spoke with House Republicans on January 29, the idea of having the chief executive regularly meet with Congress for an open question and answer session gained traction on the Internet. About 50 influential political commentators from both the very liberal and very conservative sides united to create an online petition to initiate Question Time as a regular event. Its constitutionality aside, Question Time would be the single best way for Obama to make good on his promises to create a more open and transparent federal government.

From the beginning, President Obama, then candidate Obama, focused his efforts on telling the country that there was a need to change the way business is done in Washington. He mentioned it in his speech announcing his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination by saying on the one hand he had not “spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I’ve been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.”

It was statements like this, clearly in accordance with his opposition to the war in Iraq, in addition to his ability to make brilliant speeches and his not being a Republican that ultimately swept him to the Oval Office.

Yet Obama was not the only candidate to run on the promise of making Washington more open and transparent. And, he was certainly not the first president to be elected on such a platform. Ten years ago President Bush structured his campaign on his outsider status, saying it was “time for Republicans and Democrats to end the politics of fear” and that he wanted “to change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect.”

Now, one can say Bush did nothing to advance these causes, and in fact exacerbated the Republican and Democratic dichotomy. Since taking office, Obama has been unable to bridge the gaps between the two sides and has done nothing in the way of making a more transparent federal government.

One possible solution to this problem is the aforementioned Question Time. By standing up in front of Republicans, President Obama was forced to answer their questions. Republicans were able to chip away at his health care plan, but at the same time, he was able to fight back and knock down their criticisms of his plan. Question Time is not a novel idea and it already exists in most Parliamentary systems. The United States Congress and the Executive would do well to adopt it for the American republic.

First, as Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com, a highly regarded nonpartisan political website, writes, “it seems to me that there is a need for conversations that are not staged, that are not reduced to 30-second sound bytes.” 

Too much of politics is confined into these rigid 30 second sound bytes. It is easier to launch attacks when all one must do is be entertaining and divisive. A brief statement to get radio and television play can seldom be criticized and taken apart for its flaws. In this sense, Republicans have benefited because they can claim their opposition to Obama’s health care plan is based on their fear of socialism. How can the president respond? It is hard to prove one is not a socialist in a quick, straightforward statement meant for mass consumption. Opportunities for the president to address members of Congress in a lengthy back-and-forth would diffuse such bitter and false statements.

Second, it would open up the process of Congress. It is difficult for members of the public to follow what is happening in the halls and basements of the Capitol building. Many different committees can be debating and attaching amendments to essentially the same legislation. Even being a steady viewer of CSPAN leaves one in the dark – and I have tried. Even when I was an intern on Capitol Hill, it was impossible for me to follow what was happening across all the committees, and we got daily and hourly e-mail updates! Question Time would enable the public to tune in to a meticulous discussion of a President’s proposals and Congress’ counterproposals. It would shed some much needed light on the business of Congress.

When thinking of what Question Time could look like, one cannot help but dream of an institution like Prime Minister’s Questions in the United Kingdom’s Parliament.

The weekly debate in London helps the Prime Minister defend himself from the Opposition’s attacks as much as it helps the Opposition connect to the public. Since a parliamentary system severely limits an opposing party’s powers, Prime Minister’s Questions is crucial for the Opposition to get its points across.

Question Time in the United States could function similarly. By being forced to answer pointed questions from both supporters and detractors, the executive would have to be convincing to keep the public on his side. At the same time, it would give the minority party power to influence the debate instead of continuously being blamed for bringing Congressional business to a standstill. Question Time would deliver on Obama’s, former President Bush’s and countless other presidential candidates’ promise of creating a more transparent government.

Nick Milano is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at nmilano@student.umass.edu.

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