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A Few Questions about #QuestionTime

As you may be aware, I’ve teamed up with a group of about 50 other thinkers, bloggers, insiders and outsiders to help promote the idea of Question Time — a regularly held, televised and webcasted forum in which the President would take questions from Members of the Congress, much as President Obama did with the Republican House delegation on January 29th and members of the Democratic Senate yesterday. This is truly a bipartisan endeavor, with everyone from Markos Moulitsas to Grover Norquist on board.You can sign our petition to Demand Question Time here, and follow us on twitter here.

Just a brief word about why I’ve signed onto this cause: perhaps I’m an idealist, but I tend to think that the lack of open, unmediated, and honest dialog between members of Congress, between the Congress and the Executive, and between both Congress and the Executive and the public, is the greatest threat to the efficacy of our democracy today. While structural constraints like the filibuster certainly also play a large role, these structures are nothing new — it’s the ways that our political culture have evolved around them that may be more problematic. In particular, it seems to me that there is a need for conversations that are not staged, that are not reduced to 30-second soundbytes, and that are not filtered through the lens of the media. A Question Time period, if reasonably well structured, could be a significant step toward achieving that goal. Politics needn’t always be zero-sum, particularly at the time when our country faces a number of threats — from the economy, to Islamic and other forms of radicalism, to the aggregation of power by elites, to the the changing climate — in which we will all sink or swim together. That’s why you’re seeing Democrats and Republicans, technocrats and populists all working together to agitate for Question Time.

Earlier today, I was forwarded a comprehensive report on Question Time periods written by Matthew Glassman, an analyst for the Congressional Research Service, which contextualizes them relative to both the experience in parliamentary systems, of which they are a common facet, and relative to the American experience. Calls for question time periods are not new and have been proposed periodically by members of both the Executive and Legislative branches, including William Howard Taft, Walter Mondale, Estes Kefauver, and candidate John McCain among others. But, obviously, they have yet to become a regular feature of American democracy. Our hope, then, is more to make the issue a little “stickier” in the eyes of both the public and our elected officials and less to advance some specific proposal.

Nevertheless, the details of the idea may matter — from my vantage point, for example, President Obama’s session with the House Republicans, which seemed more spontaneous, was considerably more constructive than his session with the Senate Democrats, which felt more staged. Therefore, I am going to address a handful of questions that Glassman raises in his report, as well as a couple of others that are salient to the conversation. The opinions expressed herein are mine alone and do not reflect an official position of the Demand Question Time coalition.

How Often Would Question Time Occur? In parliamentary systems, question time periods may occur weekly (the United Kingdom) or even daily (Canada), but the American appetite for consuming political news is perhaps somewhat more limited. In addition, we have a relatively strong Executive Branch which has many other duties and responsibilities, including international diplomacy which requires frequent travel. The right balance, it seems to me, is monthly sessions, probably lasting between 60-90 minutes. The Congress and the President would probably need some discretion on when to schedule these sessions within each month, but a prime time slot on a Sunday through Thursday night, when TV audiences are the largest, would probably be most desirable.

Which Executive Branch Officials would participate in Question Time? In most parliamentary systems, not only the Chief Executive but also members of his cabinet officials take regular questions from the legislature, either simultaneously or in separate sessions. The latter function, however, is arguably replicated to some extent by the Congressional Committee system, and would surely draw less public attention. My interest, then, is primarily on the President himself.

How Would Questions be Chosen? This is the one issue on which I feel most strongly: I think it is essential that the questions be chosen in some random order. Absent this, there is too much opportunity for questions which are less spontaneous and more staged, and for “back bench” members of the Congress — whom are equal to any others in the eyes of the Constitution — to play a subservient role to those who are more senior, more vocal, or (as unfortunately was the case in the session with the Senate Democrats) who might derive more electoral benefit from posing questions.

In particular, I would probably design a procedure something along the lines of the following. In advance of each session of Question Time, members of the Congress who were interested in posing a question would indicate as such to the Speaker of the House. They would not have to disclose their question in advance. A list of those members of the Congress who were interested in asking a question would be posted immediately in advance of the session on the Internet.

After that, the interested members would simply be selected in a random order to pose their questions, as is done in the United Kingdom, the lone constraint being that no party could ask more than three questions in a row (provided that there remained at least one question in the queue from the other party). Members of the Congress could not jump into our out of the queue once the session had begun.

Would a Question Period be Bicameral? It seems preferable to me to have Question Time be both bipartisan and bicameral. The larger the number of members of Congress who have the opportunity to pose questions at any given time, the less opportunity there would be for coordination, such as by leadership, that would serve to make the questions more self-serving and less spontaneous.

How Would a Question Time Period by Initiated? There are basically three options: formally via either Constitutional Amendment or via statute, or informally through custom. Of these, an informal structure clearly seems the best to me, at least initially. A Constitutional Amendment would require several years to implement, in the unlikely event that it could be implemented at all. A statue in the absence of an Amendment, meanwhile, might run into Constitutional problems, since it’s not clear that the Congress can compel members of the Executive Branch to appear before them without violating separation of powers. Therefore, the hope would simply be that Question Time would become a regular and highly popular feature that would take on something of its own momentum. Indeed, I am optimistic that once the practice got started, it would be hard to undo, as the Executive would lose significant face if he refused to answer the Congress’s questions.

What Rules Would Govern Floor Procedure? It’s likely that at least some governing rules would need to be adopted by the House and the Senate, particularly if question time took the form of a formal session of Congress. Glassman’s report suggests that it would probably be easier to adopt a new set of rules than to adapt ordinary Congressional procedure. I don’t yet have an opinion about how strictly things like the time alloted to each question and answer would need to be constrained, as it is likely that the balance between informal etiquette and formal procedures would evolve somewhat organically over time. It seems desirable, however, that any procedures would tend to give less power than more to the floor leadership, and more power rather than less to the individual members who are elected directly by the public.


Time for me to get a late dinner, but please let me know what you think with your tweets and your comments, and don’t forget to sign that petition.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.