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A Question of Accountability

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Accountability is the ultimate check for democracy. It is a sacred contract between the people and their leaders, a shared understanding that decisions need to be justified and mistakes accounted for. The slide from democracy to dictatorship begins with a government that can act without the consent of its citizens. And the United States—amidst a host of other issues—is failing miserably when it comes to accountability. Our methods of enforcement aren’t working anymore. Elections, debates, advertising, and media scrutiny simply aren’t providing the rigorous questioning we need in government.

But across the Atlantic, British Prime Minister Theresa May sighs and walks reluctantly to the podium in the House of Commons, sets down her notes, and prepares for the onslaught. She’s there for Prime Minister’s Questions—sometimes affectionately just “Question Time”—a weekly round of questions and criticisms from Parliament. Every Wednesday at noon, Prime Minister May has to sit and defend her decisions in front of the group of politicians that would like nothing more than to catch her in a lie. Question Time is quick, biting, and often hilarious. Former Prime Minister David Cameron famously responded to a question by Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn with, “Put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem!” While it can sometimes be more theatre than substance, Question Time is an integral part of British politics. In fact, a recent attempt to remove the tradition by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg met fierce resistance.

But would such a practice work in here in the United States? With the way politics are set up now, it’s unlikely. The United States doesn’t have a particularly strong tradition of direct accountability, unlike Britain. Also, the creation of such a tradition would necessarily come from those in political power, currently the Trump administration and a Republican controlled Congress. Sweeping change is unlikely to come from either of those sources. As one Guardian columnist notes, “There is nothing any prime minister would like more to get rid of than PMQs.” So perhaps that’s all the more reason to advocate for a change.

Creating a version of Question Time in the United States is a long shot, but it’s crucial if we want a functioning, accountable government. Now the most direct form of accountability between the administration and the public is the White House press conference. These conferences can be useful, but they are insufficient. Sean Spicer is an effective metaphorical airbag for President Trump, deflecting criticism and lashing out at the “fake” media, but he fails in providing a link between decision makers and the American people.

Question Time is so effective because it is so raw. Theresa May is not given a list of questions beforehand, and there’s no real restrictions on what questions can be asked. The result is that explanations are an expectation, instead of a pleasant surprise. The Trump administration has used strategic silence for every issue from allegations of Russian ties to questions about made-up domestic terror attacks, all to frightening effect in recent weeks. This should not be an option for the President of the United States. The champions of Question Time in Britain indicate a gaping hole in American politics today, a guarantee that “the prime minister (President) of the day has some command of all areas of policy and is held accountable.”

Accountability begins at the top of the executive branch, so it only makes sense for there to be a direct line of questioning, and when necessary, criticism, directed at President Trump. We must bring Question Time, or a version of it, to the United States or else we’ll never get the answers we deserve.

Web by Joshua Kopen

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    April 12, 2017 at 1:47 am

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