Saturday, May 17, 2008

A great idea from our 'right honorable friend!'

(Originally published 5/17/08)

I knew that if I waited long enough, one of the presidential candidates would deliver an idea that would really fire me up.

On Thursday, it finally happened.

In a speech about his vision for the country, GOP nominee-to-be Sen. John McCain rattled off a laundry list of policy benchmarks he hopes to meet by the end of his first term.

McCain also promised to “set a new standard for transparency and accountability” with “weekly press conferences” meant to “regularly brief the American people on the progress … our policies have made and the setbacks we have encountered.”

And then there was this:

“I'll 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,” McCain said.

Are you kidding me? An American equivalent of Prime Minister’s Questions?

Is this campaign season, or Christmas???

Prime Minister’s Questions is the gold standard for political junkies. It’s a weekly grilling to which the British Prime Minister subjects himself (or herself, as it were) in the name of being accessible to all citizens through their representatives.

Yes, the British gave us American Idol … and Simon Cowell. But PMQ is a different – a better – kind of reality show.

According to 10 Downing Street’s web site, PMQ began in 1961 with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. His biography says Macmillan “expected his tenure to be short-lived.

“Instead, he had considerable success in restoring both party and national morale and confidence,” the bio reads.

Was it coincidence that Macmillan pioneered PMQ, with the idea of giving MPs (members of Parliament) from all parties an opportunity to question the prime minister on any subject?

I don’t think so.

Over the years, PMQ has become a news item all its own. When quick-witted Tony Blair was in the arena, the Wednesday morning rows became something of a cult phenomenon. But as the increasingly raucous rounds of questions delivered by boisterous MPs have drawn international attention to PMQ, it has also attracted domestic scorn.

So McCain’s proposal understandably drew curious consideration from British media. Thus, this staid – and characteristically British – assessment:

“The weekly half hour PMQ sessions in the Commons are often rowdy affairs with party leaders trading insults spurred on by baying MPs,” the BBC remarked. “But they allow the main opposition party leaders to put the prime minister on the spot on a subject of their choice and backbench MPs to raise issues on behalf of constituents.”

If you’ve ever seen PMQ, you know that navigating the experience requires the best political skills a politician can muster. Thirty minutes is a lifetime when you’re faced with grumpy, confrontational opposition-party backbenchers with carte blanche to come after you.

But it serves a notable purpose in British politics: Prime ministers are never more than six days away from having to account for their decisions – when Parliament is in session, at least.

One has to wonder how American history would be different if our president came before the citizens’ representatives every week – and how those representatives’ own actions would change, knowing the president is just waiting to hit back.

An American president, slugging it out, toe-to-toe with Congress every week?

Now that’s what I call a campaign promise!

On the blog this weekend: Links to all kinds of PMQ info, an update on the federal shield law for reporters and disturbing news from the Supreme Court.

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