How the U.S. can fix its political infighting
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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.
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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