Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
Every time I watch the State of the Union address, I come away with the conviction that the United Kingdom has a practice of holding its leaders to account, from which Americans could draw a few lessons. It’s called “Question Time With the Prime Minister.”
Every Wednesday, Parliament requires the prime minister to give an account of his administration and his program for the country. It lasts approximately half an hour, but the whole country gets to watch the prime minister and members of Parliament (MPs) have a vigorous debate about the actions of the prime minister’s government. The prime minister must answer on his feet, and he gets applauded, laughed at, or shouted down, depending on those answers — it’s all rather spontaneous, and even entertaining, whether it were the late Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair.
Unfortunately, Tuesday evening’s State of the Union (SOTU) address had more in common with the staged and self-congratulatory nature of the Grammy’s than the adversarial nature of Question Time. President Obama laid out his agenda for Congress, gave several anecdotes to support his policy and vision for America, took a few critical shots at Congress, and they gave him 85 applause lines. Congress acts as a stage prop, while the House of Commons has all the feeling of Daniel and the lions’ den.
The oddest SOTU applause came when Congress cheered Obama telling them that he would act without them through executive order, wherever he could. I got the impression they were applauding themselves out of a job. The most deserved (and loudest) applause came at the end of the evening when the president introduced Army Ranger Sgt. Cory Remsburg, who suffered severe injuries in Afghanistan, highlighting his sacrifice and perseverance.
But what if the State of the Union were less a “televised pep rally” for the president, and more resembled Question Time? What would it look like, then, if America were instead watching the president live during prime time, and answer Congress’s oral questions about his administration on his feet without a teleprompter? Perhaps some of the questions from members of Congress and Senators would theoretically go like this:
Senator: Would the president explain how “strong” the state of the union can be, when his attorney general is choosing to recognize same-sex couples in Utah as married, when the state of Utah contends that such marriages are currently illegal?
Member of Congress: President Obama just asked Congress to make compromise, and “to focus on creating new jobs, not creating new crises.” But what about his role in these crises? Does the President really believe that we must stake the full faith and credit of the United States on Planned Parenthood having federal dollars, or that we must shut down the government rather than compromise on the HHS contraception mandate, and allow the Catholic Church, non-profits and private businesses operate according to their deeply held beliefs?
Member of Congress: Comprehensive immigration reform is needed more than ever for 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working here, people, who as Mr. President said, “come here to fulfill their dreams” and “make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everyone.” I would like President Obama to answer why he has accelerated the forced deportations of undocumented immigrants? It is a scandal to my district’s Latino community that Canadian Justin Bieber is not deported for breaking this country’s drug laws, but the President still allows federal agents to split up mothers, fathers, and children whose only crime is working to feed their families!
Senator: Mr. President mentioned in his speech that our unemployment rate is the “lowest unemployment rate in over five years,” because the official unemployment rate is 6.7%. But how can his government say the economy is better, when the population has grown, but the civilian labor force itself has now dropped to 62.8% this past December, the lowest it’s been since the 1970s?
Congresswoman: I believe with the president that women must not be forced to choose between having a job, or having a baby, caring for a sick child, or ill parents. But I would like to know why Mr. President has failed to lead by example, and has a “Mad Men” type White House that fails to give women “equal pay for equal work?”
Senator: On the issue of wages, I agree with the president’s clarion call for businesses to voluntarily increase wages for workers. This would give them job stability, and a disposable income to form and support families. It would boost many hard-hit areas of my state. Does the President have a plan for changing the business culture to incentivize more wage-boosting corporations like Costco and small businesses like Punch Pizza? We need more living wages in America, but I am concerned his minimum wage hike ideas will affect companies and small businesses unevenly?
Member of Congress: I personally favor raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, not just $10.10 as the President has proposed, if only to match the purchasing power of the $1.60 minimum wage in 1968. But the real problem is that inflation is destroying the value of families’ take-home pay. Does Mr. President have a plan to stop this runaway inflation that hurts poor and low-wage earners more than anyone else?
Bringing a little Question Time into American politics might provide an opportunity for Congress to act as the people’s representatives, and hold the President to account. I would be interested to see how Obama, and his successors, would respond. At the very least, a Question Time over the State of the Union could help re-engage the public with actual dialogue and debate, and reverse this idea of an “imperial presidency” for which Congress, not the president, deserves the lion’s share of the blame.