Next month, I will visit the House chamber to hear the State of the Union Address as a sitting Senator for the last time. As an American, it has been an honor and privilege to the see the President’s speech in person for the last 23 years. But I have often thought that perhaps it would be useful for Americans, if the President regularly appeared before Congress and responded to our questions.
A new non-partisan group called No Labels— together with thousands of supporters nationwide—is seeking now to provide Congress this opportunity. Under a proposal contained in the No Labels’ “Make Congress Work” campaign, the House and Senate would issue rotating monthly invitations for the President to appear in the respective chamber to answer questions and engage members in discussion. Democrats and Republicans would take turns asking questions for the duration of the 90-minute, televised session. Only one issue would be covered per appearance. The President would be welcome to bring Cabinet members and other high-ranking officials to help to clarify the discussion when needed.
For someone who has spent nearly a quarter-century in the Senate, this sounds like a pretty good deal.
No Labels understands that the President is a President; not a Prime Minister. America doesn’t operate under a parliamentary system. As such, the President is not considered a Party leader in the legislature and has no formal responsibility to report to it on a monthly basis. At the same time, however, we are all familiar with “Question Time” in the British House of Commons and other countries with similar legislative structures – and we are equally familiar with the potential for such events to devolve into partisan screaming matches that do little to advance consensus.
Given the current political mood in Congress, many might wonder why an American version of question time would be any different. How could this plan contribute to the goal of reducing polarization, promoting constructive discussion and breaking the gridlock that has frozen our legislative process?
First, No Labels’ proposal provides for a far more controlled environment. With time limits imposed on responses and strict rules designed to encourage civility, the event would look more like a presidential debate than a town hall. Televising the events would further assist in establishing the proper sense of decorum. As we have seen throughout American history, and again in recent years, vitriolic outbursts and insults launched on the floor ultimately harm those who hurl them far more than the targets.
Second, No Labels’ proposal would nurture results by infusing transparency and accountability into the governing process. Right now, we place more emphasis on campaigning than governing. As a result, the American people focus more on what candidates promise to do next year and less on what those holding public office need to do next week. What we are left with is a framework that makes the people’s voice too easy to ignore. No Labels’ plan would help correct that imbalance by offering the public a real-time look at how their elected leaders plan to address urgent national priorities.
Finally, the very act of coming together in such a way would send a message to the vast majority of moderates – both here in the U.S. and indeed throughout the world – that our country takes the dangers of hyper-partisanship seriously and is willing to take steps to that will foster compromise.
Creating the time and space for regular, constructive discussions between Congress and the President is a small step. However, in the face of a pervasive culture of ideology that is crippling our government, even a modest step in the right direction could have a significant impact.
I hope that my colleagues will join me in supporting this proposal.
Lieberman serves on the Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.