How the U.S. can fix its political infighting

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron making a speech in Parliament. Every Wednesday, the prime minister takes questions from his fellow party members as well as the Opposition.

Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics radio. It's that moment every couple of weeks where we talk with Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and blog of the same name -- it is the hidden side of everything.

Dubner, I am told you have been traveling, you've been getting out.

Stephen Dubner: It's true. I've been to England to visit the queen. She wouldn't actually see me. But while I was there, I had an idea. So even though -- with 4th of July coming up -- it got me to thinking that even though we broke up with the Brits a long time ago, there's one tradition they still have that I really think is worth borrowing.

Ryssdal: So long as it's not like bangers and mash, dude, it can be whatever you want.

Dubner: No, this is not cuisine we're borrowing. This is actually parliamentary procedure. What I'm suggesting: Prime Minister's Questions. This is the session in Parliament. Every Wednesday at noon, the prime minister must go before the House of Commons -- pretty much the equivalent of our House of Representatives -- and he's got to take a half hour's worth of questions from the Opposition members, as well as his own party. And it's broadcast for the entire country to see.

Ryssdal: And over here too. I think it's on C-Span, right? If you want to see it. It's quite the event; it's confrontational, you could say.

Dubner: Indeed. It's a bit like schoolboys going at each other in debate club a bit. A few weeks ago I was there, I heard Prime Minister David Cameron give the following answer to a question about Britain's faltering economy:

David Cameron: What we need to do, both in Britain and in Europe, is to combine the fiscal deficit reduction which has given us the low interest rates with an active monetary policy, and with innovative ways of using our hard-won credibility, which we wouldn't have if we listened to the muttering idiots sitting opposite me.

Crowd noise

Ryssdal: I love that. I love all the yelling while he's talking. So as much as that is, Dubner, how does that advance American democracy, my friend?

Dubner: Well here's the thing. Right now, one of the big problems in Washington is that the two parties just shout past each other instead of talk to each other -- which, according to some old-timers in Washington, began when the two parties stopped sharing cocktail hour at the end of the day. You know, it's a lot easier to demonize someone from another political party, let's say, when you don't interact so much face-to-face. At Prime Minister's Questions, what you've got are these sworn political enemies who actually do insult each other face-to-face, but because they're there in the room, they kind of share a laugh about it, about the best lines of the day. And they're actually discussing the innerworkings of government in the full light of day.

I am hardly the only person to suggest that we borrow this idea; John McCain endorsed it back when he was running for president in 2008. We recently asked McCain about it -- he still likes the idea.

John McCain: They'd talk about the issues of the day that the president, I think, should be up to speed on. It'd be great to add to the education and illumination of the voters.

Ryssdal: So one, we all know what happened to McCain, right? But number two, what does the constitution have to say about this?

Dubner: I asked a scholar named Bernadette Meyler, she studies American and British legal history at Cornell. The short answer is that the constitution would allow it certainly. It would, however, require a bit of collaboration.

Bernadette Meyler: I think that for this practice to work in the U.S., it would have to be by the mutual consent of Congress and the president.

Dubner: Now Kai, let me make one counter-argument against this idea: opportunity cost -- that is the time spent doing one thing, you can't spend doing another.

Ryssdal: Getting all economic on me here. All right, go ahead.

Dubner: Just a wee bit. So I talked to some of the folks at No. 10 Downing Street who prep David Cameron every week for Question Time. They tell me that it's a pretty massive time suck -- since you have to be prepared to answer any kind of question about any kind of issue -- and it's also a source of anxiety for the prime minister. Tony Blair, in his memoirs, called Prime Minister's Questions, and I quote, Kai: "the most nerve-racking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowel-moving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience in my prime ministerial life."

Ryssdal: So that's what you want to do to us, right?

Dubner: The other idea I have is a little bit easier, probably more fun: re-institute mandatory bi-partisan cocktail hour, every night of the week.

Ryssdal: We could do beer. Beer would be all right.

Dubner: We could do beer.

Ryssdal: Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics.com is the website. He's back in a couple of weeks. We'll see ya.

Dubner: Thanks Kai.

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May I respectfully suggest a compromise between the (former) cocktail hour and beer?
A glass of wine or two. Preferably good, honest, Italian wine. It has been known to help the most stubborn, recalcitrant curmudgeons in the world to get along with each other, for centuries.

I love Marketplace and think it and Kai are getting better and better. But ask yourself, Kai - if a freelancer sent you this, would you have even considered it? Of course you wouldn't. You'd ask: Wait, how about that pesky difference between direct election of the chief executive (US) vs. a parliamentary system (UK) where the appointed PM is the head of the party that can put together a coalition and is him/herself an elected member of the parliament? BIG difference: direct election is why we are almost inevitably a two-party country unlike European countries (to name just one well-known effect). You'd ask, but wait, Dubner, the US is a continent that is unusually diverse and in many ways; the UK is a small island that is getting more diverse, but where people live way closer together geographically than even in many US states. You'd ask, do you have ANY empirical evidence for your assertion that a Question or Cocktail or Beer Hour would make even a TINY difference in reducing infighting here? You'd ask, Do you have any expert opinion to support your main assertion on this? (The expert he quotes only says that it's not unconstitutional - a tellingly weak assertion.) In short, Kai, make Dubner and Leavitt work as hard as, say, Heidi Moore does. Maybe submit them to peer review. Make them earn their perch every time. Or something. But really, do something...

What your Correspondent does not mention is that Mr Cameron was immediately censured by John Bercow, the Speaker of the House, when the PM called the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, a 'muttering idiot'. He was compelled to rephrase his remarks in euphemisms (He could have been ordered to apologise or leave the chamber.). Any insults must be embedded in 'Parliamentary Language', such as '...the Right Honourable Gentleman opposite, who has been chuntering from a sedentary position' . . . .

Some of the best debates are not the boisterous, and often nasty, PMQs, but the budget debates between Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, and Ed Balls. Always good humoured, the two, who are at opposite poles of the economic spectrum, seem to bring out the best in each other. Ed Balls, who was a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard, has made economics, a topic that used to put me to sleep, intensely interesting. His to-the-point exchanges with Osborne always focus on the issues.

One of the differences between the UK and the US, however, is that Commons acts effectively as an upper house. The Coalition Government, for instance, recently overturned the Lords' objections to the stringent Welfare Bill, by declaring "financial privilege", which means that their Lordships' amendments were effectively declared invalid. Another difference is the layout of the House, in which the Government and the Opposition sit face-to-face, two-and-one-half swords'-lengths away, and behind their respective red lines (from which we get the expression 'toeing the line').

The UK Parliament has a wonderful website, where anyone can watch all the debates online and even take virtual tours of Parliament. The BBC's Democracy Live is also an excellent website, which you can stream online. I strongly recommend both.




Sorry, Senator, doesn't work. In case you hadn't realized it, the United Kingdom has a parliamentary system, the United States a presidential system. That's why they call their leader the Prime Minister and we call ours the President. The UK PM answers questions as a member of parliament and responds to the opposition leader who is the presumptive prime minister if his/her party gains a parliamentary majority. Who would represent the presidency in the US in such a debate? Surely not the president, since our system does not have a counterpart in the opposition. We already have the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties shouting at each other, and it doesn't do us any good at all.

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