Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Presidential Question Time


In the United Kingdom, the prime minister is subject to weekly questions from Parliament. I have often watched those sessions on C-SPAN and marveled that the prime minister sits there and suffers such indignities--American presidents after all refuse to put themselves into such situations. George Washington began--and ended--the practice of going before Congress when he went to discuss the provisions of a treaty his administration had negotiated and vowed never again to return. Other than President Gerald Ford going to Capitol Hill to discuss his pardon of Richard Nixon, presidents, as far as I know, haven't opened themselves up to Congressional questioning.

Which is why yesterday's session was so remarkable. President Barack Obama hosted members of Congress in the White House and stood there for over 40 minutes answering their questions in a public forum. President Obama called on his vanquished opponent, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), for the first question. McCain obliged by complaining about cost overruns at DoD and the ballooning price tag for the fleet of helicopters scheduled to replace the current fleet of presidential helicopters known as Marine One when the president flies in them: "Just one area that I wanted to mention that I think consumed a lot of our conversation on procurement was the issue of cost overruns in the Defense Department. We all know how large the defense budget is. We all know that the cost overruns -- your helicopter is now going to cost as much as Air Force One. I don't think that there's any more graphic demonstration of how good ideas have cost taxpayers an enormous amount of money." To which the President responded: "The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me. (Laughter.) Of course, I've never had a helicopter before -- (laughter) -- maybe I've been deprived and I didn't know it. (Laughter.) But I think it is a -- it is a -- an example of the procurement process gone amuck. And we're going to have to fix it. Our hope is, is that you, Senator Levin, and others, can really take some leadership on this."

The fleet of presidential helicopters IS due for an upgrade--some of the helicopters in the current fleet are over 30 years old--but that is beside the point. The real point is that it is remarkable that this president is willing to publicly answer questions from members of the legislative branch. From both parties, not just his own. No questions pre-screened. And not just "friendly" members of the opposition. My gosh, his surly opponent from the presidential campaign, given first crack. Other critics such as House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) were given the chance to throw a ball at the dunk tank. It was a truly unique session and perhaps by the end of his presidency, we may not think of it as unique at all.

1 comment:

Erick said...

Interesting you should bring that perspective. I had a similar thought while listening to the NOT the State of the Union last night. The verbal response from the congressionally populated audience was occasionally reminiscent of Steven Harper at Oral Questions... sans traduction. It would be exciting to see a more transparent and fluid discourse in Washington. But if this doesn’t pan out, I might be even more excited to see the American version of "As it Happens."

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