Star-Spangled Banter? A New Marketplace Podcast

(Photo: Alan Cleaver)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “Star-Spangled Banter?”

(You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

In honor of the forthcoming Independence Day, we take a look at one British tradition that the U.S. might do well to consider adopting: Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQ’s), the weekly Parliamentary session in which the PM goes before the House of Commons to field queries from the Opposition as well as his own party.

I had the good fortune to attend PMQ’s on a couple of recent visits to London. One of the sessions was particularly woolly — in part because Prime Minister David Cameron called Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls a “muttering idiot” (a comment that Cameron was duly asked to withdraw as it was unParliamentary) and also because Cameron had just returned from a G8/NATO summit in Chicago, which provided an extra hour or so of substantial back-and-forthing between the PM, Opposition Leader Ed Miliband, and dozens of MP’s. (Additionally, Greece was cratering, perhaps along with the Euro, and the U.K. had just entered its second recession — so there was plenty to whinge about on all sides of the aisle.)

It is quite a piece of theater to watch (and yes, it is largely theater), but it also struck me that PMQ’s provide the British government and especially the British electorate an opportunity to have what the American government and electorate do not currently have: a real and real-time dialogue (on national television, and on C-SPAN in the U.S.) between members of opposing parties as well as the country’s political leader. It is astonishing to see the interaction — sworn political enemies, insulting each other to their faces (albeit often preceded with an “Honorable Friend” salutation), and then sharing a laugh at the best lines, all the while discussing the actual workings of the government in the full light of day.

I am hardly the first person to propose that the U.S. institute some version of Question Time for the President. Senator John McCain, who proposed the idea when he was running for President in 2008, still thinks it would be a good idea. As he told us:

McCAIN: They’d talk about the issues of the day that the President, I think, should be up to speed on. … It’d be great. It’d add to the education and illumination of the constituents, of the voters.

President Obama, for his part, seemed to enjoy an opportunity to field Republicans’ questions in the past (watch the video or read the transcript). And at one point a “Demand Question Time” was circulated.

While our Presidential system is plainly different from Britain’s Parliamentary system, it wouldn’t take all that much to institute an American version of PMQ. In the podcast, you’ll hear from Bernadette Meyler, a constitutional scholar from Cornell Law (whom you last heard in our “How Much Does the President Really Matter?” podcast). As she explained further in an e-mail:

“[T]here would not be any constitutional obstacle to instituting a practice of Questions to the President, as long as both Congress and the President agreed to the idea. If the President resisted, however, and Congress attempted to issue a subpoena or use other means to force him to participate, constitutional separation of powers problems would arise. In particular, the President might assert executive privilege, which has generally been invoked in the context of criminal investigations by Congress. …

Because executive privilege would probably trump the interests of congressional fact finding when no clear criminal interests were at stake, something like Questions to the President would be best accomplished through mutual agreement of the branches. But then the concern arises as to why the President would agree to engage in one-sided questioning.

Here the different histories of the office of the President and that of the Prime Minister are relevant. Whereas the Prime Minister is the leader of the party that wins the Parliamentary election, the President is elected separately from Congress and often will have a different party affiliation than the congressional majority. Furthermore, the Constitution, in allotting powers to the President, gives certain capacities that resemble the powers of the British monarch more than those of the British Prime Minister. Hence the President is both more autonomous within the U.S. separation of powers scheme than the Prime Minister is within the British and less likely to feel accountable to Congress than the Prime Minister is to Parliament.

In order to make something like Questions to the President more attractive to the President, perhaps some reciprocal mechanism that would allow him to question the decisions of congressional committees could be included as well.”

If I had to make my strongest argument against importing PMQ’s, it would be the opportunity-cost argument. Here’s what one senior No. 10 Downing adviser told me about the prep time required by the PM and his staff for the weekly session:

“It takes up a huge amount of time by any reckoning. The prime minister doesn’t do anything on Wednesday morning — has an early-morning meeting, but aside from that, that’s half a day out of the working week of the head of government.”

PMQ’s can be costly to a PM beyond the outlay of time. Tony Blair has called PMQ’s “the most nerve racking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowel-moving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience in my prime ministerial life, without question.”

George Bridges, a London media who has a long history in government, used to prep John Major for PMQ’s, back when it happened not once but twice a week. Here’s how Bridges described the process to us: 

BRIDGES: “When I was working for John Major, PMQs were on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.  I was working as a political appointee, and there was a civil servant working alongside me who was absolutely charged with putting together what was called ‘The Plastic Fantastic.’ Now, this is the folder in which there is all the briefing that the Prime Minister will need to answer virtually any question he could be asked. And so we would sit down together mid-afternoon Monday and work through the kind of questions that we thought the Prime Minister might be asked, especially by the Leader of the Opposition. And we would begin to flesh out him from the official Government point of view (i.e., putting together the policy, putting together the facts). Me, from the political point of view, thinking more of the political arguments to use, we would begin to formulate answers to the questions that we thought he might be faced.

That process would gather momentum during the course of the Monday afternoon. On Tuesday morning, we’d get in at about half past six in the morning, go through the morning’s media, work out … what the big, developing stories were, and therefore the real kinds of questions he might be faced, again, especially focusing on the Leader of the Opposition, and what he might ask.

The Prime Minister would then break, go off and do other meetings. … During that period, though, that was the time at which the … civil servant charged with putting together the Plastic Fantastic would be having numerous conversations around Whitehall with his counterparts in other government departments, getting together the more in-depth briefing that might be needed to answer really quite heavy policy issues of the day that may have developed very, very quickly overnight. And they could be … on anything, from foreign affairs, to defense, to something that was quite obscure 48 hours before but had become of national significance. So that was quite an intense period during the morning. And then, at around lunchtime … the Prime Minister would, over sandwiches in the Cabinet Room, start to go over the folder in depth, in detail. He had been given it the night before, but he would really now begin to focus on the answers he was going to be giving at three o’clock. And therefore between 12:30 and 3:00, when he would leave to go to the House of Commons, we would be shuttling back and forth between him and others, really trying to get down the answers that were required. And that’s pretty much the process.”

So what do you think? Would a weekly face-off between the President and Congress help or exacerbate the sour state of affairs in Washington? Are the costs to the President too great — or, conversely, would a weekly question session provide just the accountability we need? And and and but but but etc. etc. etc. ….



Audio Transcript

Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freaknomics radio. It's that moment every couple of weeks where we talk with Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and blog of the same name -- it is the hidden side of everything.

Dubner, I am told you have been traveling, you've been getting out.

Stephen Dubner: It's true. I've been to England to visit the queen. She wouldn't actually see me. But while I was there, I had an idea. So even though -- with 4th of July coming up -- it got me to thinking that even though we broke up with the Brits a long time ago, there's one tradition they still have that I really think is worth borrowing.

Ryssdal: So long as it's not like bangers and mash, dude, it can be whatever you want.

Dubner: No, this is not cuisine we're borrowing. This is actually parliamentary procedure. What I'm suggesting: Prime Minister's Questions. This is the session in Parliament. Every Wednesday at noon, the prime minister must go before the House of Commons -- pretty much the equivalent of our House of Representatives -- and he's got to take a half hour's worth of questions from the Opposition members, as well as his own party. And it's broadcast for the entire country to see.

Ryssdal: And over here too. I think it's on C-Span, right? If you want to see it. It's quite the event; it's confrontational, you could say.

Dubner: Indeed. It's a bit like schoolboys going at each other in debate club a bit. A few weeks ago I was there, I heard Prime Minister David Cameron give the following answer to a question about Britain's faltering economy:

David Cameron: What we need to do, both in Britain and in Europe, is to combine the fiscal deficit reduction which has given us the low interest rates with an active monetary policy, and with innovative ways of using our hard-won credibility, which we wouldn't have if we listened to the muttering idiots sitting opposite me.

Crowd noise

Ryssdal: I love that. I love all the yelling while he's talking. So as much as that is, Dubner, how does that advance American democracy, my friend?

Dubner: Well here's the thing. Right now, one of the big problems in Washington is that the two parties just shout past each other instead of talk to each other -- which, according to some old-timers in Washington, began when the two parties stopped sharing cocktail hour at the end of the day. You know, it's a lot easier to demonize someone from another political party, let's say, when you don't interact so much face-to-face. At Prime Minister's Questions, what you've got are these sworn political enemies who actually do insult each other face-to-face, but because they're there in the room, they kind of share a laugh about it, about the best lines of the day. And they're actually discussing the innerworkings of government in the full light of day.

I am hardly the only person to suggest that we borrow this idea; John McCain endorsed it back when he was running for president in 2008. We recently asked McCain about it -- he still likes the idea.

John McCain: They'd talk about the issues of the day that the president, I think, should be up to speed on. It'd be great to add to the education and illumination of the voters.

Ryssdal: So one, we all know what happened to McCain, right? But number two, what does the constitution have to say about this?

Dubner: I asked a scholar named Bernadette Meyler, she studies American and British legal history at Cornell. The short answer is that the constitution would allow it certainly. It would, however, require a bit of collaboration.

Bernadette Meyler: I think that for this practice to work in the U.S., it would have to be by the mutual consent of Congress and the president.

Dubner: Now Kai, let me make one counter-argument against this idea: opportunity cost -- that is the time spent doing one thing, you can't spend doing another.

Ryssdal: Getting all economic on me here. All right, go ahead.

Dubner: Just a wee bit. So I talked to some of the folks at No. 10 Downing Street who prep David Cameron every week for Question Time. They tell me that it's a pretty massive time suck -- since you have to be prepared to answer any kind of question about any kind of issue -- and it's also a source of anxiety for the prime minister. Tony Blair, in his memoirs, called Prime Minister's Questions, and I quote, Kai: "the most nerve-racking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowel-moving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience in my prime ministerial life."

Ryssdal: So that's what you want to do to us, right?

Dubner: The other idea I have is a little bit easier, probably more fun: re-institute mandatory bi-partisan cocktail hour, every night of the week.

Ryssdal: We could do beer. Beer would be all right.

Dubner: We could do beer.

Ryssdal: Stephen Dubner, is the website. He's back in a couple of weeks. We'll see ya.

Dubner: Thanks Kai.

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  1. Jon Dickenson says:

    There is nothing better in politics than to see the Prime Minister dashing the opposition to pieces or vice versa, when a recent issue is debated at PMQs. Tony Blair was quite good and had a good turn of phrase, but when against William Hague ( the present Foreign Secretary) he used to get whooped every week! We want to hear our politicians be passionate about affairs of state and hear the arguments. At least PMQs gives the British electorate a chance of that. Surely it could work well within the American system. Why don’t they give it a try? It might allow the people to reconnect with Washington again- no bad thing.

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  2. RJ Roy says:

    A less time-consuming version would be what Canadian Parliament does, based on the same principle: Question Period ( Once a day for 45 minutes, the opposition in the Canadian Parliament asks questions to the ruling government, which may be answered by the Prime Minister or any of his staff, according to what the question is. Since the question can be answered by any member of the staff, that means that the President doesn’t need to prepare for EVERYTHING that could happen.

    Question Period almost invariably ends up being exactly what you describe in the podcast, though it also ends up being a lot of “shouting past”, since Canadian Parliament works such that all statements are directed to the Speaker, who in turn “redirects” it to the intended recipient, with the response directed the same. In essence, even if the PM and the leader of the opposition are arguing with each other, they are instead actually talking to the Speaker of the House instead of each other.

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  3. Scott says:

    PMQ has a few safeguards to make sure that the questions are really questions and not “hey, I’m trying to score some points with my constituents” questions, which occurred when President Obama addressed the Republican caucus a year or so ago. They must be submitted beforehand, and questions that have a data component are generally researched beforehand by a stats office in the House of Commons so the data is accurate and unbiased.

    Also, one difference between a possible Presidential Questions is the PMQ is between the leader of the government and the opposition. Questions between the Executive and Legislative branch are generally held through hearings, which have a legal status and I doubt that could get suspended. The current rules of Congress don’t allow members to address eachother, and since the decline of the Whig Party and the elevation of the Executive Branch, no one would pay much attention to such a discourse just within the Legislative.

    What I would like would be a series of debates akin to the Intelligence Squared debate on NPR. That way you could have both Congressmen and Senators debating a party specific point and have a winner and loser.

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  4. Eric M. Jones says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  5. Keith says:

    For a presidential system enacting a requirement to stand up in front of congress to be grilled by them as the UK prime minister must in front of parliament would be a potential disaster for the US. Think of a scenario in which the congressional opposition regularly and frequently made the president look like an idiot from the start of the president’s term until maybe mid-way through. Do you think that president would get much accomplished in that four year term? I don’t. Do you think that president would get much respect or cooperation from foreign leaders? I don’t.

    What we would end up with is someone that TV comics would make a living ridiculing and we’d be stuck with this person for four years. Yes I do remember Gerald Ford, but how much worse would it have been if Ford had been required to stand up in front of a hostile congress every so often? Imagine a Ford presidency if he couldn’t keep up with them for the majority of that first year of his term in office?

    In a parliamentary system the PM can fail a vote of confidence, new elections can be called and a new government and prime minister selected rather quickly. Someone who has no business being on the receiving end of PM question time, but may be utterly unwilling to leave on his own, can be pushed out legally. A US president can’t be unwillingly pushed out for bad performance (unless that includes high crimes and misdemeanors) no matter how bad he looks or how much support he loses without a constitutional crisis.

    Any halfway solution like the Canadian PMQ would quickly become meaningless as each side fought to keep itself from being the ones that ended up looking bad. That’s what’s already so wrong with US politics now, each side is so afraid of giving advantage to the other that meaningful work rarely gets done and compromises rarely get made.

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    • RJ Roy says:

      While I don’t disagree with your assertions, the crux of the argument being made here is that things would be that way BECAUSE the members don’t tend to directly interact as they stand right now. While the start of any change to make more direct interactions would be painful for a time, the suggestion is that they would eventually mellow out as they realize they can’t just demonize the opponents and then never deal with them.

      However, you also do point out what’s probably the main reason someone wouldn’t want to implement this; the first President under this system would be crucified as everyone begins to settle back into polite discourse. Who would want to impliment such a system and ruin themselves, even if it means that politics in the future is better?

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  6. Ben says:

    Consider marital relationships.

    If issues are regularly discussed as they occur, they can be dealt with in a timely and less emotional manner than if partners keep their feelings bottled up until there is an explosion.

    If problems are brought into the open sooner rather than later, they can be handled more efficiently and in a less acrimonious manner.


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  7. Ken says:

    Here in NZ we have a TV programme which is a combination of question time and bi-partisan cocktail hour called Back Benches ( The show has a panel of five members of parliament (each one from a different party) that are asked questions by both the presenters and the live audience. It’s sort of like an election debate, but much more informal, in a pub, and rather than talking about party policies and vying for votes, ideologies and issues are discussed.
    The informal nature of the show, and the fact it’s free to view or even attend, make it very approachable for people little political knowledge while remaining interesting for well versed pundits. I think a show like this with US politicians would be incredibly interesting as it’s a great way to cut through the party lines and discover politicians’ reasoning behind their ideologies.

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  8. RJ Francis says:

    What is the music at end of this podcast

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