Fighting Words

Question Time

John McCain wants to bring British-style political grillings to Capitol Hill.

In the near-universal sarcastic mirth that accompanied the rolling-out of Sen. John McCain’s somewhat utopian speech in Columbus, Ohio, on May 15, the quixotic nature of his foreign-policy ambitions was generally stressed. As a consequence, one of his smaller and more realistic and achievable domestic proposals seems to have been overlooked. “I will ask Congress,” said the presumptive Republican nominee, “to grant me the privilege of coming before both houses to take questions, and address criticism, much the same as the prime minister of Great Britain appears regularly before the House of Commons.”

This is a reformist proposal with quite a long and interesting pedigree, and it speaks well, I think, of the man proposing it. In Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, the president is described sternly rejecting a request from the other side of the aisle that he make regular visits to Capitol Hill to report on the progress of the war. It was perhaps not the most propitious time for the embattled and divided United States to embrace the British system, and for a while the idea lapsed. Rep. Estes Kefauver, D-Tenn., revived the scheme in the mid-1940s, and when Walter Mondale was a Democratic senator in the mid-’70s, he also put forward the idea of a regular parliamentary-style grilling of the chief executive. (Picture this happening to Richard Nixon, let alone to Gerald Ford.)

In the early 1980s, when I first moved to Washington and when C-SPAN was beginning to create a new audience—and a new appetite—for live coverage of politics, I got to know C-SPAN’s originator Brian Lamb. He told me that one of the most popular programs was his network’s transmission of Question Time from the British Houses of Parliament in London and also from the Canadian Parliament over the border in Ottawa. The result of this had been, he told me, a huge and continuing shoal of mail from viewers, demanding to know why U.S. leaders were not also held accountable in this dramatic and irreverent manner. The letters must have been going in fair numbers to Congress as well, because in 1991, Rep. Sam Gejdenson, D-Conn., put in a bill that led to a serious hearing before the House rules committee. The committee was shown a sample clip of a British prime minister—I think it must have been Margaret Thatcher—getting the treatment, but the proposal itself never made it to the floor of the House. I was later told that Dick Gephardt, after an early and well-received State of the Union speech, had urged President Bill Clinton to stay around and take questions from members informally. * Apparently, the president quite liked the idea, but his handlers had hastily whisked him back to the White House. (Again, picture the scene if it had gone the other way: Clinton might still be standing at that podium and asking to revise and extend his last reply.)

So, if I am right, this makes Sen. McCain the first Republican to endorse the proposal. I wonder if he knows exactly what’s at stake. In his satirical poem “Lord Lundy,” Hilaire Belloc depicts a greenhorn politician actually reduced to tears by a follow-up question in Parliament that begins, “Arising out of that reply …” Lord Lundy was fictional, but Harold Macmillan, who was perhaps the most outwardly urbane and unflappable of the whole postwar Tory generation, once confided that he often had to go and vomit with nerves before entering the crowded chamber of the House of Commons for prime minister’s questions. There’s no script. The handlers can’t come in there with you. There’s no warning of the real question, because the topic can easily be concealed inside an ostensible or pretext question. There’s no defense against a crisply worded follow-up. Nobody can become prime minister, or continue as prime minister, who cannot stand up to it.

Of course, the atmosphere is different, because the House of Commons is purposely constructed so that there isn’t room for all the members to sit down at one time and so that the two sets of benches face each other rather than the speaker. In these more crowded and confrontational conditions, which would not apply in the comparatively decorous surroundings of the Capitol, great big dogs like David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill and Aneurin Bevan indeed emerged from great big dog fights. (This is why one wishes that Abraham Lincoln hadgone up to the Hill to face his critics and to defend himself on everything from habeas corpus to the Emancipation Proclamation. Just imagine …)

The preferred American way of keeping a bridle and check on the executive branch is the committee system, which has, in turn, been emulated across the Atlantic by some strengthening of parliamentary committees of supervision and inquiry, both permanent and extraordinary. British Cabinet members, too, have to face their own mini-Question Times at regular intervals. Does McCain also propose to subject his appointees to the process? It would be interesting to know. For the moment, though, he has made a rather generous and intelligent offer. He probably thinks that it is in keeping with his expressed commitment to that chimera known as “bipartisanship.” He would soon find out that nothing intensified political rancor more than a good old-fashioned Question Time, but no doubt the idea was well-meant, and I was sorry to see that discussion of it was mostly lost in the general sneering.

Correction, May 20, 2008: This article originally and erroneously called Dick Gephardt the speaker of the House. He never held that position. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)