Inside the Capitol

Thursday, June 19, 2008

6-25 McCain Wants To Face Congress

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Sen. John McCain wants to stand for questions from Congress. That is a bombshell, but amid rising gas prices, falling home prices and flooding in the Midwest, McCain's offer largely has been ignored.
In comparison with the current president who doesn't have press conferences and McCain's Democrat opponent who hasn't agreed to joint town hall appearances, the Republican presidential candidate's proposal is mind-boggling.
Never has an American president volunteered to appear before Congress. During Abraham Lincoln's presidency, Congress requested that he make regular visits to Capitol Hill to report on the progress of the war but Lincoln, the great debater, sternly refused.
Since then, individual members of Congress, all Democrats, have suggested that presidents should stand for questions. The only president who reportedly liked the idea was Bill Clinton, but his handlers put a quick stop to that.
American presidents just don't go to Congress to explain and defend their programs or to publicly address criticism. That's their executive privilege.
But McCain wants to do it. We know he's a battler. We know he's courageous. But the experience of prime ministers in the British commonwealth is fair warning that it is a grueling ordeal.
C-SPAN reports that Question Time in the British Parliament is one of its most popular shows. And why not? It is open warfare, where heckling and sarcasm abound.
The U.S. Congress is definitely more well-behaved than parliaments in England, Canada or Australia but we still see some testy exchanges in U.S. congressional committee hearings.
But if McCain wants to do it, the media should love him and maybe even start slanting its coverage in his favor. And we haven't even mentioned yet that McCain has promised weekly press conferences. That should make him a media darling.
When I started in this business 21 years ago, Gov. Garrey Carruthers held weekly press briefings at 1:30 every Monday afternoon. Cabinet meetings were held on Monday mornings, which enabled the governor to report that afternoon on decisions made.
For the Capitol press corps it eliminated much of the guesswork out of knowing what was going on and when we would find out. The Washington press corps should love McCain for giving them a regular schedule.
In the parliamentary system, department ministers also have a mini-question time. They are similar to our cabinet secretaries, who do appear before congressional committees. Our president is the only one who gets a pass -- or anyone else who wants to claim executive privilege.
Facing Parliament is a somewhat different situation for a prime minister because he, and all his department ministers, are members of Parliament.
Regardless, it is a brave move on McCain's part to help bring more accountability and transparency to government. He does well on talk shows with a demeanor that is both candid and witty. Maybe he can make it work.
McCain has made a few miscues while speaking extemporaneously, and they certainly have been exploited. But from watching Question Time on television, it is quite evident that members of Congress also can embarrass themselves in front of a nation of onlookers.
The most amazing feature of his offer is that he made it. As we said, some other presidents have been asked to appear before Congress. But only McCain has volunteered to do it, if elected.
Does he think it will get him a lot of votes? Is it desperation? Will it strengthen or harm the presidency? It will be interesting to hear what presidential historians have to say about this tremendous shift in policy, if it comes to pass.
Maybe that's why McCain's offer isn't getting much notice. No one thinks it will happen. Either McCain won't be elected or, if he does, he will change his mind. Watch this one.
WED, 6-25-08

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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