PMQs: What Americans are Missing

Dispatch Boxes (Lecturns) in the House of Commons Parliament.UK
Dispatch Boxes (Lecterns) in the House of Commons

What many in Britain consider a stale feature of their system would be nothing less than a breath of fresh air in ours.

The beginning of a presidential election season in the United States is now greeted by voters with an understandable amount of dread. To be sure, we want to celebrate the idea of elections. No one should be cynical about a system that insists on the consent of the governed. But it is hard to look at the truly awful media spectacle that has unfolded thus far and still be optimistic about our national political life.

Most Americans know that something is seriously amiss, even if it’s not clear how to redeem the campaign process to become what it currently is not: an opportunity for a great national awakening. We have “debates” that are really just joint press conferences, as well as seriously reduced coverage of any candidate that isn’t a poll leader. The reliable Tyndall Report notes that to this point Donald Trump has gotten nearly half the press coverage among all the Republicans seeking their party’s nomination. Moreover, we are saddled with prime-time stories from cable news outlets that constantly verge into “he said-she said” name-calling, as well as too many reporters spending most of their time interviewing other reporters. With the exception of a few serious news organizations, even larger news outlets seem to be averse to boring their audiences with substantive discussions of candidate responses to pressing national and international crises. It’s become so bad that what many in Britain consider to be a stale tradition within their system would be nothing less than a complete breath of fresh air for ours. We could really use something like Parliament’s weekly round of Prime Minister’s Questions (available for viewing at

Every Wednesday Britain’s Prime Minister is obligated to appear in the House of Commons and face questions from leaders of other opposing parties, with the greatest number of queries coming from the leader of the largest faction out of power, and possibly the next Prime Minister. This is the system in most western parliamentary systems, working reasonably well in Australia, Canada and a number of other countries.  What it allows is a lowering of the Constitution-mandated wall between the legislative and executive functions that exists in the United States. Reducing that wall makes possible the kind of discourse that is needed in times when leaders need to be on the hook to find solutions to serious national problems, such as our chronic lateness in passing a federal budget. Frequent and direct debate between the leader of the government and those in opposition has a way of reminding everyone of significant issues in dispute.

Prime ministers generally have a good idea of what they will be asked about. And those doing the asking are not above framing questions to score some easy points against the party that actually has to govern. But Question Time has two huge advantages over American divided government. One is that questions in the House of Commons are not filtered through journalists scrambling to get screen time while also trying to function as surrogates for the other side. All that exists between the “dispatch box” of the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition is a distance of two sword lengths, a prudent design decision made long ago by British parliamentarians. The second is that name-calling and personal attacks won’t cut it in PMQs. It’s easier to call an opponent a liar to a reporter than to the opponent’s face. Direct debate without intermediaries means that questions will have to deal with affairs of state. Discussing anything less looks like evasion.

It’s a weakness in our system that nearly all of the political “debate” that occurs happens in the circus of campaigns, or sequentially through speeches by Presidents and congressional leaders given to their most ardent supports. Except for the yearly trek to Capitol Hill for the State of the Union Address, we simply have no mechanism for our national leaders to publicly argue the merits of their ideas in the presence of each other. The debates that do occur are usually private, when congressional members or their staffers meet with White House officials to iron out compromises. In the process, robust public discourse in the world’s greatest democracy withers. On most great issues the best we get is yet more sequential press conferences and the empty posturing that comes with them.

The problems hinted at here are myriad and complex.  But its hard to not conclude that our governmental system is broken in part because it depends too much on the press–what optimists used to call the “fourth branch of government”–to report the excruciatingly tough issues that those who govern must address.