McCain’s excellent British import

Published 3:45 pm Thursday, August 14, 2008

For years, one of C-Span’s most riveting regular programs is “Prime Minister’s Questions,” during which the head of the reigning political party faces criticisms of his government’s policies and failures from members of the House of Commons. What fascinates those of us Americans who watch is direct democracy in action, not unlike our town meetings of yore where local officials could not hide.

In this country the president, when he chooses (not often in some administrations), holds a press conference. But most of the time, the president’s surrogate, the press secretary, is held to account by reporters. However, these are fencing matches of little substance, except when the late Tony Show was in charge.

But the British prime ministers — as Andrew Sparrow of The Guardian in London told National Public Radio (July 25) — “have to devote several hours to preparing for all sorts of questions, and they go in there and they know that it’s going to be live on television” while many citizens are watching, and remembering.

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Former Conservative Party Leader Michael Howard emphasizes that this weekly breakthrough of government transparency — when the House of Commons is sitting — “ensures that, first of all, the prime minister knows what’s going on.”

Not only in the Bush administration, but in some previous administrations, it has been far from certain that our president does know all that’s going on in his government’s most controversial practices. If we had a regular “President’s Questions” on C-Span (which its director, Brian Lamb, would be happy to schedule), it would be very beneficial for the president to have to bone up on what’s actually going on in his administration. We The People would certainly benefit, as well.

To his credit, John McCain has pledged that, if elected, “I will ask Congress 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.”

One of the most astute and persistent questioners of federal government policies in his various newspaper columns and TV appearances is Jonathan Turley, professor of constitutional law at George Washington University.

In welcoming the Republican nominee’s proposal, Turley said on National Public Radio: “McCain does have a long history of supporting transparency in government. And a president’s session would be a very significant reform in adding a degree of transparency that we’ve never had before.”

Does Barack Obama agree?

And to extend the number of participants in this unprecedented transparency at the top of our government, I expect many Americans would send their representatives and senators questions and criticisms for them to present to the president.

Some, for example, might ask President McCain what I, as a member of the press, was unable to find out satisfactorily from Sen. McCain’s formal statements. Why, as a well-known opponent of official torture — however often denied — did he, in the Senate, vote against a bill that would have made the CIA adhere to the Army Field Manual, which mandates all the rest of our armed services NOT engage in such practices as the CIA has engaged in? He gave the often notorious CIA a pass.

I would also expect that in “President’s Questions” on C-Span, either President McCain or President Obama would be asked to explain in plain language any “signing statements” he added to any act of Congress as he enacted it into law. President Bush made far too ample use of these “signing statements,” which disabled parts of bills Congress sent to him.

Also, if President Obama or President McCain ordered his Justice Department to close down a court hearing before any evidence is presented on the questionable grounds of “state secrets” (as Bush’s attorneys general have with unprecedented frequency), that draconian cutting off of due process might well arise in “President’s Questions” to the instruction of the citizenry at large.

England is not the only country where the chief executive is held to account directly and regularly. There are “Question Periods” in Canada’s Parliament as well as in the provincial legislatures.

In Australia and New Zealand, their national town meeting is called “Question Time.” India’s leader is confronted during “Question Hour;” and the equivalent in the Irish Dail is “Leader’s Questions,” while “First Minister’s Questions” take place in Wale’s National Assembly and the Scottish Parliament.

With such instant profusion and confusion of so-called news from ever-expanding sources, many of us are far from clear on what actually is being done in our name by our national government. Direct regular questions to the chief executive could help enable us to become the truly informed citizens that our founders expected us to be. And in view of the absence of civics courses in many of our schools struggling to meet No Child Left Behind mandates, having “President’s Questions” also on YouTube could be an educational awakening for many future and present voters.

(Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of many books, including “The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance” (Seven Stories Press, 2004).)