Saturday, January 30, 2010

Question Time

How'd you like that debate between President Obama and House Republicans? Pretty cool, huh? Republicans members of the House of Representatives got to ask any question they wanted, straight to the President of the United States, and the President answered. And the whole thing was televised. That was the unprecedented part. Presidents have gone to meetings of the opposition party and answered questions before, but ususually the Q&A session is secret. This time the whole country got to see a lively debate between the President and opposition party members. Here's some video.

Well, if you liked that, how would you like it if we had a similar session once a week? That's right, how about the President of the United States, appearing before the House of Representatives, or maybe before the Senate, once a week, with opposition members asking him questions. And why limit it to opposition members? Let's allow any member to ask the President a question, with special attention given to opposition leaders, but bringing in rank-and-file members on both sides. And the whole thing on television. The public would get a lively, weekly debate on the issues of the day.

Well, if we lived in Britain, that's exactly what we would have. Every Wednesday at noon, the prime minister appears before the House of Commons and takes whatever questions about public issues that any member of Parliament cares to ask. If the Prime Minister is out of town, the Leader of the House (equivalent to our Majority Leader) answers instead.

The Speaker of the House (who, unlike the Speaker of our House of Representatives, is a neutral, non-partisan official) moderates the debate. The Speaker calls first on a member chosen at random, then, if the first member was from the opposition, on a random member of the majority, and then on the leader of the opposition -- at which point all the opposition members chime in, "Hear, hear." The leader of the opposition gets to ask about five or six questions, then another random majority party member gets a turn, and then the leader of the largest third party (currently the Liberal Democrats) gets a couple of questions, and then it's just random "backbenchers," as rank-and-file members are called in Britain, for the remainder of the time. The Prime Minister has to answer -- well at least he has to say something, he doesn't always answer the question asked. Throughout, members chime in with cheers, hoots, catcalls, and other outbursts, which the Speaker has to repress from time to time, with his signature cry of "Order, order."

To see the weekly show, go to the House's website's video section, choose any Wednesday, and go to about 30 minutes in. You'll see a lively debate, and you'll also see how much better Parliament's website's video is than the C-SPAN archive. C-SPAN's archive is appallingly difficult to watch. With the House of Commons, you have easy access to the whole day's proceedings in one click.

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