McCain’s Idea for Grilling the Chief Executive

McCain’s Idea for Grilling the Chief Executive

Any American who has ever watched the British Commons debates on TV cannot help sighing in embarrassment and shame at the sheer inarticulateness of our American counterparts in the House and Senate. Wit and intelligence are not even at issue; successfully stringing together a subject and predicate, and to do so in less than a quarter hour, is. So, just from the standpoint of rhetoric, I am of two minds about John McCain’s proposal, in a May 15 foreign policy address:

“I will ask Congress,” said the presumptive Republican nominee, “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.”

On the one hand, it is possible that the act of a chief executive having to take questions and answer criticism in Congress might do something to improve the quality of discussion there. On the other hand, that seems possible only in an alternative universe other than this one in which we live.

Rhetoric aside, however, it seems to me that Chris Hitchens, in this piece for Slate, doesn’t really credit the difference of constitutional orders between Britain and the United States. He notes that the idea has a history in the United States:

This is a reformist proposal with quite a long and interesting pedigree, and it speaks well, I think, of the man proposing it. In Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, the president is described sternly rejecting a request from the other side of the aisle that he make regular visits to Capitol Hill to report on the progress of the war. It was perhaps not the most propitious time for the embattled and divided United States to embrace the British system, and for a while the idea lapsed. Rep. Estes Kefauver, D-Tenn., revived the scheme in the mid-1940s, and when Walter Mondale was a Democratic senator in the mid-’70s, he also put forward the idea of a regular parliamentary-style grilling of the chief executive. (Picture this happening to Richard Nixon, let alone to Gerald Ford.)

I am curious as to whether, apart from Gore Vidal’s historical novel, Lincoln was in historical fact pressed to come and update Congress in this way. It seems possible, although not really in the sense of the British system. I have looked quickly through my Lincoln books and do not see a reference to it, but it was a cursory examination – if readers know of something, I would be interested to know. But I would also say that if such proposals were made, I would guess that Lincoln would have rejected such a proposal not merely on tactical grounds, but because he had a quite extraordinary sense of the role of the chief executive in relation to Congress. It would not have been in character for Lincoln to have accepted any action that would have compromised those powers vis a vis the legislature; it would not have been in character, in my estimation, for Lincoln to have done so, unless greatly pressed, in a way so as to offend unnecessarily Congressional proponents.

As a constitutional matter – not as a matter of constitutional law as such, but as a matter of the overall architecture of the US constitution – the executive does not come before Congress to get questioned in this way, because the president is not a creature of Congress. The president cannot be displaced by a vote of no-confidence, example. The president is not a prime minister, but a different kind of office altogether. For that matter, it is a striking feature of the US presidential system that no matter what the national crisis, presidents hold office until the next election; the government does not fall and get replaced by another, until the next regular election. This principle was, of course, finally settled as a matter of practice in the Civil War itself, when Lincoln was urged in some quarters to postpone the presidential election, but he rejected the idea as unconstitutional. Nor do we have national unity governments in time of crisis, in the sense of the British war cabinet of WWII; presidents may, on the basis of political prudence, fashion such a thing, as Roosevelt did, but the nature of the US presidential system is a majoritarian one, with fixed elections. You face the crisis with the administration you have; you replace if you want in the next regular election.

One reason that the US would never really have the same thing as the British system, therefore, is that the US executive is simply not accountable to Congress in the same way that the Prime Minister is accountable to Parliament. (It is true, as Hitchens points out, that the US has a sort of substitute system in the form of Congressional testimony by the president’s subordinates. But even there, in the US presidential system they are not accountable in the same way.)

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Sudha Setty
Sudha Setty

Actually, there is precedent for the President coming before the U.S. Congress to answer questions. George Washington did it to answer questions about proposed treaties and legislation that the Congress was considering. Even though the President is not a creature of Congress, I see no reason why it would preclude the President from engaging in a Question Time so long as it is appropriately passed into law (as a matter of full disclosure, I recently published an article that proposed the adoption of a Question Time in the U.S.: The central purpose of the Question Time in the UK is not to determine whether a no-confidence vote is necessary; rather, it’s to create some sense of ongoing accountability and dialogue between the Prime Minister and the House of Commons. Of course this makes intuitive sense in a parliamentary system — by its very nature, the Prime Minister and the majority of the House of Commons are from the same political party. So a Question Time is one of the ways in which a minority political party gets heard in public and gets to make its case against the Prime Minister’s government. Our own federal government from 2000 to 2006… Read more »