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America Could Use Some “Question Time”

The death of Margaret Thatcher has, predictably, led to an outpouring of remembrance of this remarkable human being, including her zest for political combat. This has resulted in numerous clips of her at question time, that hour every day when the queen’s ministers face often very hostile questions from the opposition across the floor of the House of Commons (and, far less often, from their own party). Powerline has posted one such video, of Thatcher’s last appearance in parliament as Prime Minister. She is obviously thoroughly enjoying herself.

I have often thought that it is very unfortunate that nothing like question time has developed in this country, for it has been an enormously positive force in British politics. Unlike journalists, who are inescapably locked in a mutual back scratching society with politicians and thus can’t be too tough on them, the opposite party is only too happy to force them to respond—on the fly—to embarrassing questions. This, in turn, has empowered British journalists to ask tougher questions than American journalists usually ask. The Sunday talk shows in this country are all too often softball exhibitions.

It has also forced British politicians to be very nimble on their verbal feet, and wit—which is often in very short supply in American politics—is greatly prized on the other side of the Atlantic. Many of Winston Churchill’s famous turns of phrase, such as “terminological inexactitude” and “parsimonious with the truth,” came out of question time. And then there was the famous exchange in the 18th century when one member, losing his temper, said of another, “You, sir, shall die of the pox or upon the gallows!” His interlocutor instantly replied, “And which it is to be, sir, depends on whether I embrace your mistress or your principles!”

Wouldn’t it be great if the entire cabinet and the heads of the major agencies had to appear in the House of Representatives once a week and answer whatever questions the other party chose to throw at them, while members hooted their derision or shouted, “hear! hear!”? At the very least, it would make for great political theater, once they sharpened their debating skills. Senator John McCain in his 2008 campaign for president said that if elected he would ask the Congress to appear before both houses regularly to answer questions. I doubt that would have come to pass, however, for constitutional reasons.



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