A Modest Proposal for Improving Communications Between the Executive and Legislative Branches in the Age of Donald Trump

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Two words: Question time.

* * *

Really, I could stop right there; I’m sure you can picture the spectacle as well as I can. But for those who came in late, “Question Time” is a British blood sport feature of the British parliamentary tradition. Here’s how Parliament’s web site describes it:

Question Time is an opportunity for MPs and Members of the House of Lords to question government ministers about matters for which they are responsible. These questions are asked at the start of business in both chambers and are known as ‘oral questions’.

One such government minister is the Prime Minister:

Prime Minister’s Question Time

The Prime Minister answers questions from MPs in the Commons every sitting Wednesday from 12pm to 12.30pm.

The session normally starts with a routine question from an MP about the Prime Minister’s engagements. This is known as an ‘open question’ and means that the MP can then ask a supplementary question on any subject.

Following the answer, the MP then raises a particular issue, often one of current political significance. The Leader of the Opposition then follows up on this or another topic, being permitted to ask a total of six questions. The Leader of the Opposition is the only MP who is allowed to come back with further questions.

Most MPs will table the same question about engagements and if they do, only their names will appear on the question book. After the first engagements question has been asked, any other MPs who have tabled the same question are simply called to ask an untabled, supplementary question.

This means, in theory, that the Prime Minister will not know what questions will be asked of them. However, the Prime Minister will be extensively briefed by government departments in anticipation of likely subjects they could be asked about.

That’s a little dry, so let me present Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in action:

What a shark! And on a lighter note, from the Australian Parliament, Julia Gillard[1]:

Now, do we have elected representatives capable of playing in Thatcher and Gillard’s league? I think we do. Here’s Elizabeth Warren — who rather specializes in brutal questioning — working out on Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf:

And here’s Bernie Sanders questioning Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services, Tom Price:

Now, we don’t have a parliamentary system — maybe — and the British procedures seem a little elaborate to me. Then again, the picture of question time with President Trump every Wednesday for half an hour starting at noon is a very attractive one considered as a spectacle alone. However, I think it’s also a solid proposal on grounds of public policy as well. Trump’s opposition makes much of his inconsistencies, and his at best flexible attitude toward the factual.[2] This has led to considerable confusion about what Trump really means, a confusion well expressed by, amazingly enough, Peter Thiel:

[THIEL:] But I think one thing that should be distinguished here is that the media always has taken Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally.

For “the media,” read “the political class,” especially the establishment factions thereof, and especially the liberal establishment factions thereof.

[THIEL:] I think a lot of the voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally. And so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment or things like that, the question is not ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ or, you know, ‘How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?’ What they hear is ‘We’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.’ ‘We’re going to try to figure out how do we strike the right balance between costs and benefits.’

Now, I can file most of what Trump says under the heading of commercial puffery (which doesn’t imply I endorse the product). That’s a sensible and appropriate style of discourse for a public figure who is or has been in the real estate, entertainment, casino, and personal branding businesses. The problem is one of scale: Government is of a completely different scale than business — which is why government should not be run like a business — and the risks are inordinately higher. Puffery in government leads to uncertainty, and Mr. Market hates uncertainty. Yes, liberals’ favorite president after Obama, Reagan, did say “We begin bombing in five minutes” but he didn’t say the equivalent on every topic every five minutes! Or Tweet it…

So, I think Question Time would provide an excellent opportunity to filter out the commercial puffery from Trump’s pronouncements, which would be good for the country. And as an former debater, as is Yves, I think there is no better way to do that than cross-examination by a skilled opposition (like Warren or Sanders). Question time would provide this.[3]

Would Trump do it? I think if it were up to him, he would. First, I think Trump would believe he would win the encounters; and he is, after all, a master persuader. Second, if the Democrats challenged him to do it, he’d have to take them up on it, or appear weak[4]. Third, during the campaign, Trump, at his rallies, was in essence running A/B testing on tens of thousands of people in real time, and adjusting his pitch accordingly (or his data team down in San Antonio was); Question Time would allow him to keep working at that scale and at that pace, in a way that speeches, press conferences, and the Twitter do not. Fourth, it would be fun. Like a cage match….

* * *

So that is my own modest proposal for a change to the Constitutional Order: Question Time. How about it?


[1] Background on the 2005 WorkChoices program implemented by John Howard’s Liberal government, mocked by Gillard.

[2] Is Trump a liar or a bullshit artist, in Harry Frankfurt’s famed distinction? Summarizing: “The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the bullshitter doesn’t care if what they say is true or false, but rather only cares whether or not their listener is persuaded.” If the former, the country is indeed lucky! My answer is both; the outer man is a bullshit artist, but the inner man is a liar (and who among us….). I believe that because Trump has spoken too many unseasonable truths — for example, that the Iraq War was a debacle — for me to believe that he doesn’t care about the truth, or can’t recognize it when he sees it.

[3] The White House press corps is said to have once performed that function.

[4] And they could always use the old empty chair trick.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


    1. witters

      Have you ever watched Question Time? In Australia it is always on the ABC. What does it do? Well, it is a matter of cute questions the minister wants from him/her side, and from the other “click bait” questions no-one even bothers expecting to get a proper answer. It is a farce, and of a politically demeaning kind. One that puts sound-bites ahead of any principled politics. Go and have a look.

  1. fritter

    An excellent idea on many fronts. It won’t ever fly though. Imagine Bernie Sanders questioning Barack Obama. The elites don’t want to be questioned. That’s why they control the press. The only thing worse in their minds would be answering to the people. It would be very entertaining, but I don’t think they would be willing to set the precedent for future administrations. They’ve been conditioning the public not to question the executive branch for too long. Next thing you’ll want public discussion before we invade a country or assassinate someone.

    1. Carolinian

      Exactly. One should point out that question time didn’t make Thatcher or Blair any less weaselly in their actions. But it is entertaining. When I still had C-Span I used to love it.

  2. diptherio

    Question time would be…something we could do. It would be entertaining, that’s for sure. Politics in both the UK and Oz seem about as whacko as ours, though, so I don’t know that it’s a fix for anything as much as it would just be something fun to watch. A cage match, as you say. Come to think of it, the occassional actual cage match would be pretty entertaining too. We should have those.

    Just imagine, instead of a recall election, congress members could be made subject to a cage-match referendum. If 50%+1 vote for cage-match, it’s a duel to the death with the next congresscritter that loses their cage-match referendum. People would start paying more attention to politics, that’s for sure.

    1. FluffytheObeseCat

      Yes! A Death Guild Thunderdome on the Potomac! It’s to die for.

      (Seriously it would be an improvement.)

  3. George B

    At the very least it would be entertaining. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Sanders take down Price. And the spectacle of it would have people tune in that would ordinarily never pay attention to televised politics beyond the sound bites on Good Morning America.

  4. John Parks

    Anything sounds better than “I’ll have my lobbyists contact your lobbyists” but I like your idea. It would make for some decent ratings in a real reality show.

    Proceeds can go to charity.

  5. integer

    The question Julia Gillard received was what is known in Australian politics as a “Dorothy Dixer“, named after the American Q & A columnist Dororthy Dix who was reputed to have made up her own questions to allow her to publish answers detailing topics she believed her readers would be interested in. From Wikipedia:

    In Australian politics, a Dorothy Dixer is a rehearsed or planted question asked of a government Minister by a backbencher of his/her own political party during Parliamentary Question Time.

    The term can be used in a mildly derogatory sense, but in common usage today is simply pre-arranged questions from a friendly audience member. Often, the question has been written by the Minister or his/her staff rather than by the questioner, and is used to give the Minister a chance to promote themselves or the work of the Government, or to criticise the opposition party’s policies, to raise the profile of the backbench Member asking the question, or to consume the time available for questioning and thereby avoid tougher questions. It is a common and widely accepted tactic during Question Time in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

  6. Jeff Z

    True, but even hypocrites can ask damn nasty questions. It may not matter so much WHO is asking the questions, as that questions get asked.

  7. Paul Art

    For those of you who had smoke coming out of your ears on hearing Attila the Hen speaking there and pompously pronouncing that the poor got richer under her – here is a link and information which underlines the point that when the economy is improving overall, politicians cannot claim credit for that- very similar to Bill Clinton’s vacuous claim about how he single handedly improved the economy in the 1990s. We engineers know how empty that claim is. He just happened to win and become President right at the time when the harvest of a 100 years into technologies like the internet, computers and wireless came in at that time. He had nothing to do with it. In fact he had everything to do with what led to the GFC. Here is a link to that information https://leftfootforward.org/2013/04/did-the-poor-get-richer-under-thatcher/

    1. lyman alpha blob

      Attila the Hen – ha! Never heard that one before.

      That alone stopped the smoldering that had started in my auditory canal after listening to that self righteous bombast. Thank for the laugh.

  8. Clive

    Oh, Lambert, please — for those of us with guilty political ideology pasts — don’t taunt us with vintage Thatcher. To think that, once upon a time I really believed in that tripe. To have described the country then, let alone now, as a “property” “owning” “democracy”… like the “Democratic” “People’s” “Republic” of “Korea”; every word is wrongly utilized.

  9. Ranger Rick

    I was expecting those two words to be “Money Talks!”

    Who says a president can’t bribe Congress into doing what he wants?

  10. JerseyJeffersonian

    Dreaming here, but…

    I’d like it even more if it were a two-way questioning session; i.e., the President must indeed answer questions posed by the legislators, but in return the legislators would be obligated to answer questions posed to them by our Chief Magistrate. Only fair, it would seem to me, if those bloviators would have to risk suffering the potential embarrassment of having their own agendas and their corrupt allegiances to their paymasters called out into the light for their constituents – remember them? – to learn of. If being able to skewer individual legislators in this way were adjudged to be too much, perhaps the right of questioning could be restricted to the heads of legislative committees (as these are often the loci of shenanigans counter to the public interest) and the party leaders of both houses of Congress. Of course, the potential for diversionary kayfabe would still exist, but this would depend upon the willingness of all participants to play along with the deception, something not guaranteed.

  11. dbk


    I actually was thinking the same thing when watching the confirmation hearing for AG. I was following my own Senator (Dick Durbin, D-IL), who was clearly upset and frustrated, but couldn’t seem to break the niceness barrier and actually confront the nominee outright.

    Durbin is from downstate Illinois and is a decent, civilized politician. He behaves like nearly all my male cousins and old classmates do – always polite, no matter how ticked-off.

    Anyway, I wrote to him twice, once before and once after the hearing. The last sentence of my message after the hearing (well, before the sentence that read “Thank you staff member for reading this message”) was originally to the effect that he and his fellow Democrats needed to take a page out of Question Time. But I deleted it, because it seemed rude (I’m from downstate IL too, sigh).

    Another Senator who seems to me capable of Question Time in-your-faceness: Al Franken, who’s an adept at speaking “Minnesota Blunt”. He was good.

    But Durbin needs to become more assertive (that’s downstate Illinoisan for “aggressive”). He’s the Minority Whip, for heavens’ sake! It’s his job to make sure everybody falls in line, every time, for every vote.

    Different times call for different approaches.

  12. TheBellTolling

    Wasn’t McCain advocating this in his campaign? Could get some across the aisle support…

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