Monday, May 19, 2008

Emperor's New Words

In a speech delivered in Columbus on May 15, Senator John McCain proposed this:

"I will ask congress to grant me the privilege of coming before both houses to take questions, and address criticism, much the same as the Prime Minister of Great Britain appears regularly before the House of Commons." At first blush, this seems like an entirely benign idea.

I'm not sure the Senator understood exactly how radical his proposal is, and how thoroughly it would reconceptualize the rhetorical presidency. Thomas Jefferson was afraid that a personally delivered State of the Union address before congress so resembled a British monarchical Speech from the Throne that he ended the practice altogether. Until Woodrow Wilson, presidents did not venture into the chambers of congress, but instead sent written messages there.

McCain's proposal certainly stems from noble intentions: aspirations to bipartisanship and interbranch cooperation. Peculiar, because the British parliamentary style is anything but cooperative; it is confrontational, adversarial, and effective in large part because there are two roughly equal factions fighting it out in parliament.

The problem with importing the British idea into the American context is that our institutions are different and the hybrid system thus created might create more problems than the innovation was meant to solve. (The history of American governmental institutions can be read as a history of good intentions generating unintended outcomes: think of the electoral college, the McGovern Fraser reforms, superdelegates, etc.) Whereas the British have a separation of parties inside the House of Commons, Americans also have the separation of powers. Whereas the Prime Minister is a member of parliament, the president is the head of a different branch of government. Inviting the president into congress may not necessarily facilitate interbranch dialogue because the conversation will probably be one-sided. Yes, McCain intends, at least for now, for the president to "take questions," but who is to say that presidents would not seize the opportunity to deliver monologue after monologue to a hapless and often sychophantic congress (as is annually the case at the State of the Union Address where applause is interrupted only by platitudes.) McCain's proposal is a Trojan Horse for the Imperial Presidency.

The asymmetry of the rhetorical relationship between a president and members of congress should not be confused with the Prime Minister (as primus inter pares) and his backbenchers debating with the leader of the opposition party and the shadow cabinet. Let us not give the Emperor the keys to the Senate when, gradually and thus imperceptibly in the last century, he has already stormed into it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Incredible insight. I hadn't thought about the dangers that come with the President standing on the floor of Congress with seemingly equal status with congressmen. I think the differentiation between the PM as a member of parliament and the Pres as the head of an entirely different branch is key.

Nonetheless, I do like the idea of the President taking questions from Congress. Imagine the dialogue that could have been created if Bush had fielded questions from the likes of Ted Kennedy and Barbara Boxer. No more hiding behind the Snow's of the world.