A Parliamentary-Style Question Period: Proposals and Issues for Congress
A Parliamentary-Style Question Period: Proposals
and Issues for Congress
July 29, 2008
Matthew E. Glassman
Analyst on the Congress
Government and Finance Division
A Parliamentary-Style Question Period: Proposals and
Issues for Congress
In May 2008, Senator and presidential candidate John McCain stated that, as
President, he would “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.” Such a “question
period,” in which the chief executive official appears before the legislature to answer
questions, is a feature of most parliamentary systems. Prime Minister’s Questions is
a major component of British politics, receiving substantial press, radio, and
television coverage. In many national parliaments, including the British House of
Commons, questions are also directed to other Cabinet Ministers, serving as a major
form of legislative oversight and constituency service.
In the early years of the U.S. government, the President and members of his
Cabinet appeared occasionally on the floor of the House and Senate to advise on
treaties and to consult on pending legislation. But the practice fell into disfavor as
stronger notions of the separation of powers took hold. A variety of proposals have
been offered in the 19th and 20th centuries to establish a formal question period in one
or both congressional chambers, but no proposal has ever been formally voted upon
by the House or Senate.
Scholars and other observers have debated the merits of introducing a question
system in Congress. Advocates argue that a question period will improve the
performance of executive departments by improving congressional oversight
capabilities, promote inter-branch dialogue and relations, increase public knowledge
and interest in government affairs, and strengthen the institutional position of
Congress within the government relative to the President. Opponents contend that a
question period is ill-adapted for a non-parliamentary system, provides poor
oversight, will intensify partisanship, will undermine the committee system, will be
generally filled with theatrics and manipulation, may be expensive, and will give the
executive branch an unnecessary forum within Congress.
This report surveys how question periods are conducted in Britain and other
parliamentary democracies, examines previous proposals for question periods in the
United States, considers potential advantages and disadvantages of a question period,
and outlines some legislative considerations for policymakers considering a question
period for Congress.
This report will be updated as events warrant.
In troduction ......................................................1
Cross-National and Historical Context.................................2
The Question Period in Parliamentary Practice.......................2
Question Time in Britain....................................2
Floor Procedure For Oral Answers............................5
Urgent and Topical Questions................................6
Answers to Written Questions................................6
Prime Minister’s Questions..................................7
Additional Parliamentary Models.................................8
Historical Proposals for a Question Period in Congress...............12thth
18 and 19 Century Practices and Proposals...................12
Other Contemporary Proposals..............................16
Evaluating a Question Period for Congress.............................17
Potential Advantages of a Question Period.........................18
Public Stage for Congress..................................23
Criticism of a Question Period...................................24
Intensification of Partisanship...............................29
Undermining the Committee System..........................29
Quality of Debate.........................................30
Forum for the Executive Branch.............................32
Legislative Considerations for Congress...........................32
Which Executive Branch Officials?...........................33
What Form Would Questions Take?..........................33
How Often Would Question Time Occur?.....................33
How Would Questions be Chosen?...........................34
Would a Question Period be Bicameral?.......................34
What Rules Would Govern Floor Procedure?...................35
Who Would Referee?......................................36
A Parliamentary-Style Question Period:
Proposals and Issues for Congress
In May 2008, Senator and presidential candidate John McCain stated that, as
President, he would “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.”2
Such a “question period,” in which the chief executive official appears before
the legislature to answer questions, is a feature of most parliamentary systems. Prime
Minister’s Questions is a major component of British politics, receiving substantial
press, radio, and television coverage. In many national parliaments, including the
British House of Commons, questions are also directed to other Cabinet Ministers,
serving as a major form of legislative oversight and constituency service.
Proposals to permit, or require, executive branch officials to appear before the
Congress to answer questions and to explain policy have been made periodically in
the United States. In 1991, Representative Sam Gejdenson introduced a proposal that
provided for a two hour question period each month.3 In the early 1970s, Senator
Walter Mondale proposed various forms of a “question period” for executive branch
officials.4 During World War II, Representative Estes Kefauver offered a series of5
similar proposals, but none was ever acted upon by the House. Similar inaction took
place regarding proposals offered by President Taft in 1912,6 and by Georgeth7
Pendleton, a Representative and Senator during the late 19 century.
1 This report is an updated and expanded version of a report originally written by Paul
Rundquist, formerly a Specialist in American National Government at CRS.
2 John McCain, “Prepared Remarks” (speech, Greater Columbus Convention Center,
Columbus, OH, May 15, 2008). Available at [http://www.johnmccain.com/Informing/News/
Speeches/e8114732-e294-4a0d-b0b6-e5fa16857f61.htm], viewed July 22, 2008.
3 H.Res. 155, 102nd Cong., 1st sess.
4 S.Res. 123, 93rd Cong., 1st sess.; S.Res. 136, 94th Cong., 1st sess.
5 H.Res. 327, 78th Congress, 1st sess.
6 U.S. Congress, Senate, Message of the President of the United States, 62nd Cong., 3rd sess.,
Dec. 19, 1912, S. Doc. 989 (Washington: GPO, 1912); “Message of the President,” House
debate, Congressional Record, vol. 49, part 1 (Jan. 3, 1913), p. 946.
7 H.R. 214, 38th Cong., 1st sess.; S. 227, 46th Cong., 3rd sess.
Scholars and other observers have debated the merits of introducing a question
system in Congress. Advocates argue that a question period will improve the
performance of executive departments, enhance congressional oversight capabilities,
promote inter-branch dialogue, increase public knowledge and interest in government
affairs, and strengthen the institutional position of Congress within the government
relative to the President.
Opponents contend that a question period is ill-adapted for non-parliamentary
system, provides poor oversight, will intensify partisanship, will undermine the
committee system, will be generally filled with theatrics and manipulation, may be
expensive, and will give the executive branch an unnecessary forum within Congress.
This report surveys how question periods are conducted in Britain and other
parliamentary democracies, examines previous proposals for question periods in the
United States, considers potential advantages and disadvantages of a question period,
and outlines some legislative considerations for policymakers considering a question
period for Congress.
Cross-National and Historical Context
To analyze the possible options for structuring a question period in Congress
and the potential effects of a question period on legislative-executive relations, an
initial examination of the question period practices in other countries, and into
proposals for a similar procedure in the American Congress, is necessary. Existing
question periods in parliamentary democracies vary widely in their format and
procedures. Likewise, historical proposals in the United States have involved a range
of question period procedures.
The following sections of the report survey the use of Question Time in Britain,
Question Period in Canada, Question Hour in Germany, and Oral and Government
Questions in France. Afterward, a variety of historical proposals for a question period
in the United States are discussed.
The Question Period in Parliamentary Practice
Question Time in Britain. The British Parliament engages in the most
familiar question period process. Members of Parliament (MPs) submit written and
oral questions to Ministers, seeking information about government actions and
policies, which in turn requires Ministers to explain and defend their actions.8 The
system thus allows for both opposition party scrutiny of the government as well as
governing party defense of current policy. Prime Minister’s Questions, in which the
Prime Minister fields oral questions regarding important national policies from the
opposition parties in parliaments, is the most visible and well-known aspect of
question time in Britain. The system, however, also serves as a primary means of
8 United Kingdom, House of Commons Information Office, Parliamentary Questions, FS
No. P1, Ed 3.6 (London: The Stationery Office, 2007), p. 2.
constituent service; Members often pose detailed written questions to Ministers in
regard to specific constituent casework concerns.9
Question Time in Great Britain dates to 1721.10 The system has evolved
considerably over the course of 300 years, and some aspects of its procedures and
functioning are based on custom rather than written rule.11 In the 19th century, MPs
had relatively unlimited opportunities to ask questions, but gradual restrictions on the
number of questions a Member could ask and the total amount of time available for
questions occurred between 1909 and the present.12 The modern format of question
time was largely achieved by 1965, although procedural reviews and minor changes
have occurred regularly since then.13
Submitting Questions. Questions by Members are submitted in advance to
the Table Office (the British equivalent of the Parliamentarian’s Office).14 The Table
Office then puts the draft question into acceptable form according to the practices of
the House of Commons and determines whether a proposed question falls under the15
jurisdiction of the Minister to whom the question is put.
At the time of submitting a question, Members specify whether they require an
oral or a written response. Members are limited to two oral questions per day and no16
more than eight in any 10-day period. Members who seek a written response
9 A.H. Burch, The British System of Government (New York: Praeger, 1967), p. 207.
10 United Kingdom, House of Commons, Procedure Committee, Parliamentary Questions:
Third Report of Session 2001-02, HC 622 (London: The Stationery Office, 2002), p. 6. For
more detail, see Patrick Howarth, Questions in the House: The History of a Unique British
Institution (London: The Bodley Head, 1956), pp. 11-14.
11 House of Commons, Procedure Committee, Parliamentary Questions: Third Report of
Session 2001-02, p. 6.
12 Ibid., p. 6.
13 Ibid., pp. 7-9.
14 Since 2003, Members have been allowed to submit questions electronically. During the
House of Commons Library, Parliamentary Questions - Current Issues, SN 04148 (London:
The Stationery Office, 2007), p. 5.
15 United Kingdom, House of Commons Information Office, Parliamentary Questions, p. 3.
The nonpartisan Speaker of the House of Commons is the first judge of whether a question
is permissible. Among the grounds upon which a question had been ruled inadmissible have
been that the question was not a genuine question (it was instead a short speech); that it
sought the interpretation of a statute; that it sought information already available elsewhere;
that it was frivolous. Complete references to the rulings of the Speaker regarding questions
may be found in Sir David Lidderdale, ed., Erskine May’s Treatise on the Law, Privileges,th
Proceedings, and Usage of Parliament, 19 ed. (London: Butterworth, 1976), pp. 323-336.
See also Anthony King and Anne Sloman, Westminster and Beyond (London: Macmillan,
16 United Kingdom, House of Commons Information Office, Parliamentary Questions, p. 5.
During the 19th century, Members were not restricted in the number of oral questions they
categorize their question as either ordinary or named. Ordinary questions have no
deadline for answer (but are usually answered within a few weeks); named questions
must be answered within a set period (usually two or three days). There is no limit
on ordinary questions, but Members are restricted to a daily maximum of five named
questions.17 Although oral questions receive substantial press coverage and are the
subject of much political commentary, written questions are far more common,
accounting for between 80% 90% of all questions submitted in a given year.18
Most British MPs are active questioners. A survey of Members during the 2001-
02 financial year indicated that 93% of Members reported submitting19 at least one
oral question per week, and 91% reported submitting at least one written question per
week. Despite increased restrictions on the number of questions Members may
submit, since 1970 there has been a sharp increase in the total number of questions,
from approximately 18,000 questions in financial year 1972-73 to over 74,000
questions in 2006-07.20
Oral Questions. Department Ministers appear daily in Parliament to answer
questions on a pre-arranged, but informal, rotating basis.21 In practice, each Minister
appears before Parliament about once every four weeks, except for the Prime
Minister, who answers questions once a week. Members seeking to ask an oral
question must submit it three days in advance of a Minister’s appearance. Thus, to
could submit. In 1909, a daily limit of eight oral questions per Member was put in place, and
in1972 the current maximum of two was adopted. See United Kingdom, House of
Commons, Procedure Committee, Parliamentary Questions: Third Report of Session 2001-
02, pp. 6-7. Despite these restrictions, not all questions submitted for oral answer can be
accommodated in the daily time periods set aside for questions. For example, in the 2005-06
financial year, 5,353 questions were successfully submitted for oral answer. Of these, 2,734
(51%) received a reply on the floor of the House. See United Kingdom, House of Commons
Information Office, Parliamentary Questions, p. 8.
17 Ibid., pp. 12-13.
18 United Kingdom, House of Commons, Procedure Committee, Parliamentary Questions:
Third Report of Session 2001-02, p. 48; United Kingdom, House of Commons Library,
Parliamentary Questions - Current Issues, p. 5.
19 The technical phrase for submitting a question in England is to table a question. Submit
is used here, however, to avoid confusion with the American legislative use of table (to
indefinitely postpone action on a bill).
20 Data on the number of questions submitted from 1946-2000 is available in United
Kingdom, House of Commons, Procedure Committee, Parliamentary Questions: Third
Report of Session 2001-02, pp. 9,48. Data on questions submitted from 2001-2007 is
available in United Kingdom, House of Commons Library, Parliamentary Questions -
Current Issues, p. 5. See also Dermot Englefield, Whitehall and Westminster: Government
Informs Parliament (London: Longmans, 1985) p. 52.
21 Paul Evans, Dod’s Handbook of House of Commons Procedure, 6th ed. (London: Dod’s,
2007), p. 59; United Kingdom, House of Commons Information Office, Parliamentary
Questions, p. 7.
question a Minister appearing on Thursday, a Member must submit his question by
noon on Monday, although questions may be submitted further in advance.22
All questions submitted are placed in the Notice Paper of the House of
Commons, which is published on a daily basis. Therefore, department Ministers and
their staff have at least three days to prepare their answers for oral questions (except
for supplementary follow-up questions, discussed below). At 12:30 p.m. daily, after
the deadline for submitting oral questions for the session three days forward, the
questions for oral response are shuffled and drawn at random, and are numbered on
the Order Paper in the order drawn.23 A quota system determines the number of
questions that are listed, based on the length of time a given department is slated to
answer questions.24 Members whose questions are drawn lower in the shuffle may
request a written answer or submit their question again for a future oral reply.
Floor Procedure For Oral Answers. The time for oral questions fills about
one hour each day Monday through Thursday when the House of Commons is in
session. Some Cabinet Ministers (such as Treasury or Defence) are scheduled for the
entire hour, while Ministers from departments that typically receive fewer questions
may appear for only part of the hour. At noon each Wednesday, a 30-minute block
of time is reserved for questions to the Prime Minister.25 Question Time, like other26
official parliamentary proceedings, is chaired by the nonpartisan Speaker.
On the day assigned for a question, the Speaker calls for the first question as
determined by the order set in the shuffle. The text of the question is printed in full
in Hansard (the British equivalent of the Congressional Record). Therefore, the
inquiring Member need only identify for the Speaker the numbered question he is
asking. The Minister typically responds with the prepared response drafted by the
civil service. The content and delivery of answers are governed similarly to
questions; if the Speaker believes a Minister is not answering the question or using
the time to make a speech, he may interrupt and urge the Minister to finish.27
After the answer is given, supplementary questions are in order. The Speaker
may use his discretion, but will typically allow the original questioner one follow-up,
and then will alternate between majority and opposition party Members. As
supplemental questions are not known to the Minister beforehand, it is here that
22 Ibid., p. 5.
23 Ibid., pp. 8-9.
24 The quota system allows for a large number of questions in short period of time. For
instance, department Ministers appearing for 10 minutes have a quota of eight questions and
Ministers appearing for 55 minutes have a quota of 25 questions. On average, 14 printed
questions (and their supplementaries) are answered each day. United Kingdom, House of
Commons Information Office, Parliamentary Questions, pp. 6, 9.
25 Ibid., p. 7.
26 United Kingdom, House of Commons Information Office, The Speaker, FS No. P2, Ed 3.2
(London: House of Commons, 2003), p. 2.
27 House of Commons, Procedure Committee, Parliamentary Questions: Third Report of
Session 2001-02, p. 17.
spontaneous and strategic debate is most evident, both in an unforeseen supplemental
and in the Minister’s response to an unexpected inquiry. The Speaker has sole
authority to decide when to stop accepting supplementary questions. Once the
Speaker so decides, he calls for the second printed question, and the process begins
again. Any printed question that does not get asked prior to expiration of a Minister’s
allotted time is required to receive a same-day written response.28
A Minister is not required to answer a question nor to assign a reason for so
refusing.29 Ministers occasionally decline to answer an oral question because a formal
government response to the question is forthcoming or because an answer would be
detrimental to national security interests. Additionally, a substantial body of
precedent exists in Britain whereby the Speaker rules questions on certain subjects
out of order, such as the Royal Family, commercial information regarded as
confidential, personal information pertaining to civil servants, and some matters
relating to defense and national security, among other subjects.30
Urgent and Topical Questions. Oral questions not listed on the daily Order
Paper may be asked in unusual circumstances. Called “Urgent Questions,”31 these are
normally reserved for emergencies that do not permit the required notice. The
Member seeking to ask an urgent question is required to consult the Speaker, who
determines if the question warrants immediate reply. If it does, the Speaker notifies
the Minister of the question. It is not uncommon for this notice to be as short as a half32
hour before the question is asked. In 2007, Parliament began experimenting with
a process known as “topical questions,” in which the last 10 to 15 minutes of each
Question Time hour would be reserved for rank and file MPs to ask supplementary
questions on any topic.33
Answers to Written Questions. Oral questions account for only a small
percentage of the questions asked of Ministers by MPs. The remainder of the
questions specify a written answer. As with questions for oral response, questions for
written response are normally submitted to senior civil servants to draft an
appropriate reply. It is common practice for a Member to submit a constituent issue
question first for written response, and then only require an oral answer if the original
28 Ibid., p. 6. This is not a particularly burdensome requirement, since in most cases the
department will have already drafted a response for oral delivery.
29 United Kingdom, House of Commons Information Office, Parliamentary Questions, p. 2.
30 Englefield, Whitehall and Westminster: Government Informs Parliament, p. 53.
31 Prior to the 2002-03 session of Parliament, Urgent Questions were known as Private
32 United Kingdom, House of Commons Information Office, Parliamentary Questions, p.
12; Evans, Dod’s Handbook of House of Commons Procedure, p. 59; Kenneth Bradshaw
and David Pring, Parliament and Congress (London: Quartet Books, 1981), p. 364.
33 United Kingdom, House of Commons, Select Committee on Modernisation, Revitalising
the Chamber: Role of the Backbench Member, HC 337 (London: The Stationery Office,
2007), p. 28; United Kingdom, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, Governance
of Britain — Revitalising the Chamber: Role of the Backbench Member (London: The
Stationery Office, 2007), p. 7.
reply was unsatisfactory. Written responses are delivered to the inquiring Member
and are printed in Hansard.34
Prime Minister’s Questions. The Prime Minister appears before Parliament35
each Wednesday at noon to answer oral questions for 30 minutes. Parliamentary
questions directed toward the Prime Minister now receive substantial press, radio,
and television coverage in the United Kingdom, and are routinely rebroadcast in the
United States on the C-SPAN network.36
Procedures for Prime Minister’s Questions differ somewhat from the procedures
used for all other oral question periods. Oral questions to the Prime Minister may be
submitted as with ordinary oral questions to other Ministers. In practice, however,
submitted questions to the Prime Minister typically ask only about his engagements
for the day;37 in this way, supplementals may cover the full range of government
policies. This practice reflects the differing role of the Prime Minister from other
Ministers, and allows for a lively and unscripted debate about timely policies.38
The almost universal use of such “open” questions to the Prime Minister has
both benefits and drawbacks. Proponents of the open question system argue that it
makes it easy for the opposition to raise topical issues and is the only existing
mechanism by which to hold the Prime Minister publicly accountable for his policies
and decisions. Critics of the system argue that “open” questions tend to create
fiercely partisan debates and result in a lack of depth in the scrutiny of the Prime
Minister, due to the questions jumping around from issue to issue.39
The availability of the Prime Minister for frequent questioning is a relativelyth
new development in the British Question Time. In the 19 century, the Prime
Minister was liable to questioning in the same proportion of the time as were his
Cabinet colleagues. As a courtesy to the elderly Prime Minister at the time, William
Gladstone, the Prime Minister’s questions were put last in the order to permit him to
come late to the daily session. As the number of questions increased, the number of
34 Ibid., p. 13; A.H. Burch, The British System of Government, p. 207.
35 Prior to 1997, Prime Minister’s Questions occurred for 15 minutes on Tuesday and
Thursday each week, from 3:15 to 3:30 p.m. See United Kingdom, House of Commons
Information Office, Parliamentary Questions, p. 7.
36 Timothy J. Burger, “British-Style ‘Question Period’ Would Let All Members Grill
Administration Officials,” Roll Call, December 13, 1990, p. 5.
37 United Kingdom, House of Commons Information Office, Parliamentary Questions,
38 The Prime Minister is permitted to transfer a question to another Minister if he or she
feels the question rightfully should be answered by another. This practice, however, has
largely fallen out of favor over the past 30 years. United Kingdom, House of Commons,
Procedure Committee, Parliamentary Questions: Third Report of Session 2001-02, pp. 18-
vol. 27, no. 2 (Summer 1973), p. 268.
39 United Kingdom, House of Commons, Procedure Committee, Parliamentary Questions:
Third Report of Session 2001-02, p. 20.
occasions when the Prime Minister was questioned decreased. The Gladstone
exception became custom, and it was not until 1961 that a separate time period for
directing questions to the Prime Minister was established.40
Additional Parliamentary Models
Many, if not most, parliamentary democracies provide for some form of
question period in which MPs can scrutinize the government.41 The particulars of
these question periods vary widely. Often custom and tradition are as important as
institutional structure in determining how a given question period functions in
practice and how effectively it serves its stated goals.
Canada. The “Question Period” in the Canadian House of Commons is similar
in structure to British Question Time, but differs in several important respects. Most
importantly, there is no requirement that oral questions be submitted in advance; as
a matter of routine, Members of the Canadian Parliament ask questions of Ministers
without advance notice.42 Thus all oral questions, in theory, operate under the same
spontaneous context as Prime Minister’s Questions in Britain. In practice, however,
some Members may notify Ministers in advance of their questions, and questions43
from the governing party rarely contain unpleasant surprises.
A second important difference between the British and Canadian systems is that
all Ministers appear at Question Period in Canada each day, unless a prior obligation44
of official business prohibits their attendance. Members can thus question any
Minister on any day. Questions, however, are not directed toward specific Ministers;
any individual Minister may answer any posed question. The nonpartisan Speaker has
no authority to compel an individual Minister to respond to a particular question.45
Procedurally, Question Period in Canada is structured to allow opposition46
parties the opportunity to question the government. Typically, the lead opposition
party is given the first three questions, with smaller opposition parties allowed one
or two questions, based on arrangements between the Speaker and the leaders of the
40 Patrick Dunleavy et al., “Prime Ministers and the Commons: Patterns of Behavior,”
Public Administration, v. 68 (Spring 1990), pp. 123-140.
41 Question periods, however, are not necessarily historically-rooted institutions in
parliamentary systems. For instance, Japan adopted a question period for the first time in the
1990s. Howard W. French, “Hear, Hear, Please! ‘Question Time’ in Japan,” The New York
Times, Nov. 22, 1999, p. 28.
42 Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit, eds., House of Commons Procedure and Practice
(Montreal: McGraw-Hill, 2000), p. 415.
43 Ibid., p. 422.
44 Ibid., p. 422.
45 Ibid., p. 433.
46 Ibid., p. 422.
various parties.47 Individual questions to be asked are organized by the parties; the
parties decide on a daily basis which Members will participate in the questioning and
deliver a list of names and suggested order of recognition to the Speaker.48 Once the
Question Period has begun, the Speaker calls on the Members at his discretion, and
also may allow supplementary follow-up questions.49
Finally, the Canadian Parliament augments Question Period with Adjournment
Proceedings, commonly called the “late show.”50 Any Member who is dissatisfied
with the answer to a question posed during the afternoon Question Period may
petition the Speaker to discuss the matter further at the conclusion of the day’s
legislative business, usually 6:30 p.m.51 Due to the large number of petitions
received, the Speaker will designate up to five for debate. When directed, a Member
may then speak for up to four minutes on the topic, with a Minister getting two
minutes to respond. At the conclusion of the 30-minute period, the House stands in
The procedures and customs of Canadian Question Period tend to create an
atmosphere of spontaneity and excitement, which occasionally includes
parliamentary heckling, normally recorded verbatim in the Canadian Hansard,
thereby serving as a vehicle for many Members’ opinions to be recorded.53 A
Canadian observer has commented:
What usually ensues is a verbal fencing match with precocious opposition
members sparring with ministers, attempting to bait them into saying something
that is an embarrassment to the government. The minister must “keep his cool”
and not allow himself to be goaded into saying anything more than is necessary
to provide factual information or, as is often the case, to gracefully avoid the54
47 Ibid., pp. 422-423.
48 Ibid., p. 423.
49 Ibid., p. 23.
50 Ibid., p. 433. In Britain, a similar system called “adjournment debates” is used to allow
for extended remarks by MPs and Ministers. Unlike the Canadian system, however, topics
for adjournment debate in Britain must be submitted the week prior to the desired date, and
only one topic is discussed each day. Thus, adjournment debates do not allow for as much
participation as Adjournment Proceedings in the Canadian Parliament.
51 Ibid., pp. 433-437.
52 Ibid., p. 436.
53 For example, on Feb. 5, 2008, a question was put forth regarding what the government had
done in response to corruption scandals. After the question was asked, Hansard records
opposition party members chanting “Oh! Oh!” The answering Minister then recognized the
heckling by saying, “I welcome the enthusiastic response of the opposition.” (42 Hansard
1445 (2008).) In another instance, on the same day, a question from a Member was
interrupted by hecklers and required the Speaker to call the chamber to order. (42 Hansard
54 Richard J. Van Loon and Michael S. Whittington, The Canadian Political System:
The arrival of live television coverage in the Canadian Commons in 1977
increased the visibility of this daily exchange as well as chamber attendance during
questions. As a result, the Speaker felt compelled, in light of the placement of
microphones on each desk, to rule that the traditional expression of support for a
speaker (the slamming of desks lids in unison by one party or another) was too noisy
and disruptive of the new electronic coverage.55
Germany. In the Bundestag, up to 180 minutes per week may be allotted for56
Question Hour, a question period styled similarly to the British system. Deputies
may submit oral or written questions for Cabinet Ministers and the Chancellor.
Deputies must submit oral questions during the week prior to when they wish to
receive an answer; urgent questions may be allowed on a day’s notice.57 Deputies are58
also allowed to submit up to four questions per month for written response.
Although questions are becoming more common in Germany, their number does not
begin to equal the number submitted and responded to in Great Britain or Canada;
a total of 15,000 oral and written questions were asked between 1998 and 2002.59
A German variant of the system is the “interpellation” procedure in which a
group of deputies (typically from the opposition parties) can petition the President
of the chamber to call a special question period.60 If 31 or more deputies sign the
petition, then a plenary session debate is held on the questions and the government’s
reply. Such “major interpellation” sessions occur with regularity; between 1998 and61
2002, 156 were held. Some scholars, however, suggest that major interpellations
have become less frequent during the past few decades, in part because investigating
committees of the Bundestag have the right to compel testimony from federal or state
government officials.62 Groups of Members may also petition for written replies to
a so-called minor interpellation, in which the government issues a written reply, but
no debate is held.63
Environment, Structure, and Process, 2d ed. (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1976),
55 C.E.S. Franks, “The Problem of Debate and Question Period,” In John Courtney, ed. The
Canadian House of Commons, (Calgary: The University of Calgary Press, 1985), pp. 3-5.
56 Germany, Bundestag, Rules of Procedure of the German Bundestag (Berlin:
Administration of the German Bundestag, 2004), Rule 105, p. 40; Ibid., Annex 4, p. 58.
57 Ibid., pp. 58-59.
58 Ibid., p. 59.
59 “Questions to the federal government,”available at [http://www.bundestag.de/htdocs_e/
parliament/04plenar/02itembusi/itembus5.html], accessed July 7, 2008.
60 Germany, Bundestag, Rules of Procedure of the German Bundestag, Rule 101, p. 40.
61 “Instruments of Scrutiny,” available at [http://www.bundestag.de/htdocs_e/parliament/
function/scrutiny/instruments.html], accessed July 7, 2008.
62 David B. Conradt, The German Polity (New York: Longman, 1982), pp. 145-146.
63 Germany, Bundestag, Rules of Procedure of the German Bundestag, Rule 104, p. 40.
France. The 1958 constitution established the right of Assembly Members to
question the government on a weekly basis.64 Two procedures are now used for oral
questions: one period called “oral questions” and one called “government question
time.” Oral questions, which typically involve questions local in nature, are currently
asked on Tuesday. Such questions are screened in advance by the President’s
Conference, a steering committee comprised of the heads of all the parties
represented in the chamber. Seven minutes are allotted for each question, including
the answer and follow-up questions from the Member. In the 2005-2006 ordinary65
session, 384 questions were asked.
The second procedure, government question time, usually considers issues more
national and political in character. Government question time takes place for one
hour each Tuesday and Wednesday. Five minutes are allotted per question (including
answer and follow-ups), and thus 12 questions are asked each day.66 The process is
overseen by the President’s Conference, which allots the questions to parties based
on numerical strength. The questions are not screened in advance.67 The President’s
Conference may decide to permit a brief period of chamber debate after a Minister
responds to a particularly important question, but most oral questions are simply68
followed up by one or two supplementals from the inquiring Member.
Questions for written response form the bulk of inquiries in the assembly.
Members are allowed unlimited written questions, and the questions often reflect
constituent casework inquiries. Written questions have gained significant popularity
among Members in the past two decades; in the 2005-2006 session, 32,423 questions
were submitted, up from approximately 12,000 in 1994. Answers are expected to be
obtained within two months. Both questions and responses are printed in the Journal
Officiel. Members may submit questions electronically, and all questions and answers
are publically searchable on the Parliament’s website.69
64 Article 48 reads, in part, “At one sitting a week at least precedence shall be given to
questions from MPs and to answers by the Government.”
65 France, National Assembly, The National Assembly in the French Institutions, translated
by Declan McCavana (Paris: National Assembly, 2007), file 47; France, National Assembly,
Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly (Paris: National Assembly, 2007), Rule 133.
66 The National Assembly in the French Institutions, file 47.
68 Prior to 1974, the practice of asking questions of the government was routinely paired
with extended debate. Since 1974, however, question time has operated largely without
69 France, National Assembly, The National Assembly in the French Institutions, file 47.
Historical Proposals for a Question Period in Congress
At various times, proposals have been offered by American scholars and public
officials to increase the formal contact between the executive branch and Members
of Congress. Most of these proposals favored various forms of a question period for
Cabinet members, and even for the President. Others have tied the question period
to proposals to permit Cabinet members to appear on the floor of the House and/or
Senate as debate participants, but not to vote.
18th and 19th Century Practices and Proposals. During the First
Congress, it was not unusual for Cabinet members, and even the President, to appear70
before the Congress to consult on matters of policy. During the First Congress,
Cabinet members appeared before the Senate 14 times, and eight times before the71
House, in most cases delivering written messages in person. It appears that the
practice fell into disfavor in the Second Congress. A resolution calling for the
Secretaries of War and of the Treasury to appear before the House to answer
questions pursuant to the House investigation of the defeat of General St. Clair’s
Indian expedition was defeated. James Madison, a leader of the forces opposed to
summoning the Secretaries, said that to do so would lead to “embarrassing and72
perplexing consequences.” Apparently the House concurred, and little effort to
bring the Cabinet and the Congress together officially was made until the Civil73
During the Civil War, Representative George H. Pendleton introduced the first
of several bills permitting Cabinet Secretaries the privilege of the floor in the House74
and Senate with the right to debate matters affecting their departments. Under the
bill, the Secretaries were to be available for questions submitted by Members and by
70 For a description of President Washington’s appearances in the Senate chamber to consult
on a proposed treaty see William Maclay, The Journal of William Maclay, 1st ed. (New
York: Ungar, 1970), pp. 125-129; and Senate debate, Annals of Congress, vol. 1 (August 22
and 24, 1789), pp. 68-72.
71 For a recapitulation of Cabinet officer appearances before Congress, see U.S. Congress,
House, Heads of Executive Departments, report to accompany H.R. 214., 38th Cong., 1st
sess., H.Rept. 43 (Washington: 1864), pp. 6-7. For a Senate appearance by Secretary of State
Jefferson, see Senate debate, Annals of Congress (July 21, 1789), p. 52. For an appearance
on the Senate floor by Secretary of War Knox, see Senate Journal, Aug. 7, 1789. The 1789
act establishing the Treasury Department permitted the Secretary of the Treasury, alone
among the Cabinet Secretaries, to report to the Congress in writing or in person. There is no
evidence that Secretary Hamilton ever appeared in person. See 1 Stat. 65, 66; Ron Chernow,
Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), p. 304.
72 For debate on summoning the Secretaries, see House debate, Annals of Congress, vol. 3
(Nov. 13, 14, 19, and 20, 1792), pp. 673-694, 696-701, 703-708, 711-712.
73 Cabinet officials have made occasional appearances on the floor of Congress during the
20th century. Most recently, journalistic reports indicate that Secretary of Health and Human
Services Tommy Thompson appeared on the House floor to support a Medicare bill in 2003.
Jackie Koszczuk and Jonathan Allen, “Late Night Medicare Drama Triggers Some
Unexpected Alliances,” Congressional Quarterly Weekly, Nov. 29, 2003, pp. 2958-2959.
74 H.R. 214, 38th Cong., 1st sess.
committees on two days of the week. The bill was referred to and reported from a
select committee, and debated by the House but never voted upon.
In 1881, Pendleton (then a Senator) again offered the proposal which was
referred to a select, bipartisan committee, and was unanimously reported to the
floor.75 In its report, the select committee claimed the requirement that Cabinet
officers answer questions and participate in floor debate would
Require the selection of the strongest men to be heads of departments and will
require them to be well equipped with the knowledge of their offices. It will also
require the strongest men to be the leaders of Congress and participate in debate.
It will bring these strong men in contact, perhaps into conflict, to advance the
public weal, and thus stimulate their abilities and their efforts, and will thus76
assuredly result to the good of the country.
Although the measure received the support of many senior Senators, the bill was
never brought to a vote.
Taft Proposal. The next major proposal to bring the Cabinet into Congress
was offered by President William Howard Taft in 1912, in his third message to
Congress on the State of the Union.77 Taft recommended that Cabinet Secretaries be
available for questioning by Members of both Houses, and that they be permitted to
participate in debate (but not vote) relating to their departments:
I do not think I am mistaken in saying that the presence of the members of the
cabinet on the floor of each House would greatly contribute to the passage of
beneficial legislation. Nor would this in any degree deprive either the legislative
or the executive branch of the independence which separation of the two
branches was intended to promote. It would only facilitate their cooperation in78
the public interest.
The Taft proposal was not acted upon in the brief period remaining in his term.
Kefauver Proposal. Proposals either for a question period, for the appearance
of Cabinet officers in the House and Senate, or for variations of both were introduced
at intervals over the next 30 years. One proposal came from Representative (later
Senator) Estes Kefauver. In 1943, Representative Kefauver proposed a “question and
report” period for Cabinet members and officers of independent agencies.79 The
officials would be invited to appear before the House or Senate at least twice per
75 S. 227, 46th Cong., 3rd sess.
76 U.S. Congress, Senate, Principal Officer of Each Department Occupying a Seat on the
House and Senate Floor, report to accompany S. 227, 46th Cong., 3rd sess., S.Rept. 893
(Washington: 1881), p. 8.
77 U.S. Congress, Senate, Message of the President of the United States, 62nd Cong., 3rd sess.,
Dec. 19, 1912, S. Doc. 989 (Washington: GPO, 1912); “Message of the President,” House
debate, Congressional Record, vol. 49, part 1 (Jan. 3, 1913), p. 946.
78 Ibid, p. 946.
79 H.Res. 327, 78th Congress, 1st sess.
month to respond to written questions submitted by Members and approved by the
committee of jurisdiction. After written questions were disposed of, Members would
be permitted to ask oral questions, with the time for such oral inquiries equally
divided between the majority and minority parties.
The Kefauver proposal received generally favorable comments from the press
and from scholars.80 A Gallup poll taken in December 1943 showed 72% of those
interviewed supporting the question and report period. In 1943, Secretary of State
Hull addressed a joint meeting of the House and Senate, and General Marshall
appeared at the Library of Congress to report informally to the House on the conduct
of the war, and to answer Members’ questions. These successful meetings between
executive branch officials and the Congress aided the proposal to institutionalize
Ultimately, opposition from congressional leaders worried about increased
partisanship and concerns expressed by executive agency heads regarding legislative
micro-managing of the executive was sufficient to kill the plan. The Judiciary
Committee, to which the Kefauver bill was referred, did not conduct hearings on the
bill, and never reported the measure.81
Mondale Proposal. In the 1970s, the leading congressional supporter of the
question period proposal was Senator Walter Mondale. In the 93rd and 94th
Congresses, Mondale introduced resolutions permitting weekly question and report
periods.82 No more than two hours were to be consumed by the report periods in
which agency and department heads would be invited to respond to written questions
offered by Senators and approved by the committee having jurisdiction. At least one
of the two hours would be devoted to oral questions, germane to the subject of the
earlier written questions. The chairman and ranking minority member of the
committee approving the written questions would control the time for oral questions
asked by their parties’ Members. Under the Mondale resolution, television and radio
coverage of the proceedings would have been permitted, under guidelines set by the
Committee on Rules and Administration.83
Subsequently, support for the question period proposal came from a
subcommittee of the House International Relations (now Foreign Affairs)
80 See press excerpts in Kefauver’s extension of remarks in Congressional Record, vol. 90,
part 1 (Jan. 19, 1944), pp. A303-5 and Congressional Record, vol. 90, part 2 (Feb. 15,
81 Stephen Horn, The Cabinet and The Congress (New York: Columbia University Press,
1960), pp. 159-164. Horn notes that the proposal was endorsed by several political
scientists, including V.O. Key, Jr., who were in government service during wartime, and
senior government officials including Harold Smith, Director of the Bureau of the Budget,
and Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who claimed to have suggested the idea to President
Taft for inclusion in his 1913 State of the Union Message. Horn cites as the key opponents
House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Rules Committee chairman Adolph Sabath.
82 S.Res. 123, 93rd Cong., 1st sess.; S.Res. 136, 94th Cong., 1st sess.
83 No provision was made in the Mondale proposal for obtaining committee approval where
two or more committees share jurisdiction over a subject.
Committee. In the second session of the 94th Congress, the Special Subcommittee on
Investigations conducted a series of hearings on “Congress and Foreign Policy.”84
The subcommittee report concluded that “relations between the executive and
legislative branches need urgent attention and improvement, lest existing frictions
seriously impair the attainment of U.S. foreign policy objectives.”85 To minimize
these perceived deficiencies, the subcommittee offered a series of policy and analysis
recommendations. Among them was a proposal for a limited question period to
enhance congressional oversight of national security matters.
Early in the 95th Congress, the executive and legislative branches should agree
to initiate a “question hour” period, during which ... Cabinet officers, answer
questions from Members of Congress ... The use of such, procedure by the U.S.
Congress will provide direct and regular access to the executive branch’s senior
foreign policy official. He should appear before each House of Congress
separately and in alternation, once a month while Congress is in session. These
sessions would be open to the entire membership of the House and Senate, and
would take the form of “question and answer” periods. The practice would be
limited to foreign policy matters, and the sessions would be open or closed
depending on the sensitivity of the issues and on the will of the parties. This
device would supplement, but not be a substitute for, the Secretary of State’s
appearances before the standing committees of Congress. Other Cabinet officers
who have foreign policy responsibilities should also appear for such sessions,
when requested by Congress, although presumably not as frequently or
periodically as the Secretary of State. A “question hour” period on a wide range
of issues will help restore a dialogue and facilitate the flow of information
between both branches on important matters of foreign policy and national
security. Ground rules for this procedure would have to be determined between
the two branches, taking into account Congress’ right to know and query, and the
executive branch’s justified concern over the possible revelation of secret or86
No further action was taken on the question period proposals in the 94th or 95th
Gejdenson Proposal. In December 1990, the House Democratic Caucus
endorsed a proposal by Representative Sam Gejdenson calling upon the House Rules
Committee to study the feasibility of establishing a “question period” in the House.87
In May 1991, Representative Gejdenson introduced H.Res. 155, which provided for
84 U.S. Congress, House, Committee on International Relations, Legislative Review
Activities of the Committee on International Relations, 94th Cong., 2nd sess., H.Rept. 94-1774
(Washington: GPO, 1976), p. 52.
85 U.S. Congress, House, Committee on International Relations, Special Subcommittee on
Investigations, Congress and Foreign Policy, Committee Print, 94th Cong., 2nd sess.
(Washington: GPO, 1976), p. 1.
86 Ibid, p. 10.
87 Timothy J Burger, “British-Style ‘Question Period’ Would Let All Members Grill
Administration Officials,” Roll Call, Dec. 13, 1990, p. 5; “Question Period,” Roll Call,
December 17, 1990, p. 2.
a two-hour question period each month.88 Members of the President’s Cabinet would
be invited by the Speaker of the House to come before Congress. Questions would
alternate between the majority and minority, and the original questioner would be
allowed to ask one unscripted follow-up question.
Under the Gejdenson plan, questions would be submitted in writing to the
Cabinet member in advance, as well as published ahead of time in the Congressional
Record. The questions would be chosen by the majority and minority leader from
among questions submitted by Members. Each Member would be limited to
submitting one question per month. During the question period, House committees
would be prohibited from meeting or conducting business. Fifty-three Members
cosponsored H.Res. 155. Hearings on the proposal were held by the Committee on
Rules in March 1992, but no further action was taken.89
McCain Proposal. In May 2008, presidential candidate John McCain
proposed that, as President, he would “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 of90
Although Senator McCain offered no specifics as to how he envisions a question
period operating, his statement does imply that he would personally appear before
Congress, as opposed to members of his Cabinet. His analogy to the Prime Minister
of Great Britain suggests that he would ask Congress for something like the “Prime
Ministers Questions” component of the British question system. Beyond this broad
outline, it is unclear whether Senator McCain would support individual aspects of
past question time proposals regarding written questions, the appearance of Cabinet
officials, or the various options for the format of the question and answer session.
Other Contemporary Proposals. Journalistic accounts suggest that both
President Carter and President Clinton considered the possibility of creating a
parliamentary-style question period in Congress. During the 1976 presidential
election campaign, President Carter indicated his support for a question period.91 At
a speech announcing his candidacy, Carter stated the following:
We must insure better public understanding of executive policy, and better
exchange of ideas between the Congress and the White House. To do this,
88 H.Res. 155, 102nd Cong., 1st sess.
89 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules, Congressional Question Period for Members
of the President’s Cabinet, hearing on H.Res. 155, 102nd Cong., 2nd sess., Mar. 18, 1992
(Washington: GPO, 1992).
90 John McCain, “Prepared Remarks” (speech, Greater Columbus Convention Center,
Columbus, OH, May 15, 2008).
91 Jimmy Carter, Why Not the Best? (New York: Bantam, 1975), p. 147. See also James
Sundquist, The Decline and Resurgence of Congress (Washington, D.C: The Brookings
Institution, 1981), p. 467.
cabinet members representing the President should meet in scheduled public92
interrogation sessions with the full bodies of Congress.
Journalistic accounts suggest that President Clinton considered proposing that
he answer questions from Congress the day after the State of the Union address in
1993. House majority leader Richard Gephardt promoted the idea after observing
Clinton’s rhetorical ability at a party caucus meeting.93 Although White House
spokespersons revealed that the idea was under consideration, negative reactions
from congressional leaders prevented the idea from going further.94
Evaluating a Question Period for Congress
As previously discussed, existing question periods in parliamentary democracies
vary widely in their format and procedures. Likewise, historical proposals in the
United States have suggested a range of question period procedures. An assessment
of the potential merits and drawbacks of any particular proposal for a question period
in Congress will be influenced by the specific format selected. Similarly, the effects
of a question period on the congressional policy process and congressional-executive
relations might be somewhat dependent on the specific format.
Two dimensions of particular importance that differentiate various question time
formats are (1) which executive officials will answer questions, and (2) whether
questions and answers will be written, oral, or both. Legislators seeking to structure
a Presidential question period that consists only of oral answers may need to consider
different issues than legislators seeking a structure that includes both written and oral
questions to Cabinet officials.
In practice, a Presidential question period with oral answers only might resemble
the Prime Minister’s Questions portion of Question Time in Britain. This would
perhaps limit the time and resources expended while also generating a high level of
public interest and coverage of national issues. A more extensive question period that
included Cabinet officials or written answers, however, might allow for greater
oversight and scrutiny of the executive branch, and allow for Member questions
about more specific policy or oversight concerns.
The following sections of the report examine the potential advantages and
disadvantages of a question period, and then discuss some of the legislative concerns
for policymakers considering the adoption of a question period in Congress. Given
the variety and scope of different proposals, not all of the advantages or
92 Jimmy Carter, “Prepared Remarks” (speech, National Press Club, Washington, DC, Dec.
93 Mary McGrory, “Let Congress Ask Questions of Clinton,” Buffalo News, Feb. 15, 1993,
94 Anne Groer, “Clinton May Face Congress’ Shouts,” Orlando Sentinel, Feb. 16, 1993, p.
A7; Timothy J. Burger, “Foley Nixes a Presidential ‘Question Period’ on Floor,” Roll Call,
Feb. 18, 1993, p. 4.
disadvantages are applicable to all question time formats; in such cases, differences
are noted in the text.
Potential Advantages of a Question Period
Advocates of adopting a parliamentary-style question period in Congress have
advanced a variety of arguments in its favor. These arguments generally advance four
!that a question period will improve the performance of executive
departments by improving congressional oversight capabilities;
!that a question period will promote inter-branch dialogue and
!that a question period will promote increased public knowledge and
interest in government affairs; and
!that a question period will strengthen the institutional position of
Congress within the government relative to the President.
Improved Oversight. Many supporters of a question period for Congress
believe that a question and answer period with Cabinet officials could lead to
improved accountability of the executive branch.95 By serving as a complement to the
committee oversight system, a question period could allow Members frequent, direct
public access to Cabinet-level officials. Some critics of the current system of
committee oversight hearings believe that a question period could help alleviate
perceived problems of timeliness, access, and shared interests that currently exist. A
question period could allow for routine, timely oversight by the entire congressional
Wider Oversight Participation. Typically, under the current committee-
based oversight system, only committee members are allowed to question executive
branch officials. A committee might permit Members of Congress who are not
members of the committee to sit with it to question witnesses if they have a
recognized concern in the committee’s inquiry, but such instances are infrequent.96
Junior members of the committee may also have little opportunity for participation.
The large number of committees and high volume of committee and subcommittee
work inherently limits Members in the number of oversight areas in which they can
participate.97 The question period might allow all interested Members of Congress
95 A question period that involved only the President would likely focus on policy issues of
national prominence rather than particular issues within executive departments. Thus, the
oversight capacity of such a question period might differ significantly from a question
period that included Cabinet officials.
96 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules, Congressional Question Period for Members
of the President’s Cabinet, p. 42.
97 Ibid., p. 80.
both to hear the officials’ explanations of policy, and to offer questions if they wish,
It also has been charged by some scholars that some congressional committees
have become uncritical supporters of the agencies they have been responsible for
overseeing, and thus no longer perform their institutional roles as effectively as they
might.99 By allowing the full membership of Congress to question Cabinet officials,
proponents believe that such relationships between agencies and committees would
not preclude serious scrutiny of executive departments. As Representative Derrick
stated during a hearing,
Over the years there becomes a somewhat incestuous relationship between the
committees of jurisdiction and the areas they oversee. Over a period of time, in
many instances, rather than becoming disciplinarians of the areas they oversee,100
committees become advocates.
In the British Parliament, observers have noted that backbenchers tend to
develop subject expertise through the question period.101 Although it could be argued
that this subject specialization in the U.S. Congress generally develops through
congressional committee membership, there are a limited number of committee
positions available. Thus, a Member of the House might be interested in and
knowledgeable about tax law but may not have a seat on the Ways and Means
Committee. Arguably, the Member is effectively cut off from contact with the
appropriate officials formulating tax policies, although many Members may now
channel such interest into membership in informal groups and caucuses. With a
question period, such Member interest in subjects outside the purview of their
committees could arguably be harnessed more effectively.
Faster Answers. Proponents of a question period also argue that the
committee system cannot produce timely answers from the executive branch; it is not
a speedy means of obtaining information. Oversight hearings may occur weeks or
months after the events that triggered them.102 A regular question period would allow
Members to raise concerns about any contemporary matter, including administration
98 Ibid., p. 42.
99 One of the complaints lodged against the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy was that it
had become an advocate for the interest of the private nuclear industries it was responsible
for regulating. See J. Dicken Kirschten, “Doomsday at Hand for the Joint Atomic Energy
Committee?” National Journal, vol. 8 (Nov. 20, 1976), pp. 1658-1665. Various academic
studies have noted the uneven oversight performance among congressional committees. See
Joel Aberbach, Keeping a Watchful Eye: The Politics of Congressional Oversight
(Washington: The Brookings Institution, 1990) and Christopher Foreman Jr., Signals from
the Hill: Congressional Oversight and the Challenge of Social Regulation (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1989).
100 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules, Congressional Question Period for Members
of the President’s Cabinet, p. 50.
101 Peter G. Richards, The Backbencher (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), p. 44.
102 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules, Congressional Question Period for Members
of the President’s Cabinet, p. 93.
policy or responses to events that occurred in a timely manner. As stated by Colin
Campbell, former President of the Canadian Study of Parliament group, in hearing
One of the great difficulties I find in the United States is that it does take time,
nonetheless, to get the inquiry system through committees running, and
sometimes the most crucial period of a crisis is lost in terms of galvanizing
public opinion, in giving people a sense of how the executive branch is dealing
with it because there is no more immediate way of having officers of the103
executive branch come and answer questions.
A question period might also effectively speed up constituent casework. In the
British parliamentary experience, questions submitted for written response constitute104
a major means of constituent service for MPs . Matters of a purely local nature, or
involving individual citizens’ complaints against government bureaus, are frequently
resolved by means of parliamentary questions submitted for written response. The
parliamentary requirement that named questions receive a written response within105
days of submission enforces an efficient constituent service program for MPs.
Members of Congress devote considerable time to constituent service, including
inquiries to agencies on behalf of constituents. This casework activity is frequently
a protracted procedure. Adopting the British parliamentary requirement of a quick
response time to questions for written response might improve the casework
performance of Members of Congress, assuming that agencies provided comparably
thorough service in a shorter time period. If the Congress were to follow British
practice and publish agency responses to written questions in the Congressional
Record, a more public record of agency responses would be available than the current106
practice, with casework responses forwarded directly to individual Members.
Written response questions can also serve to notify a government agency of an
individual Member’s attitude toward a proposed policy. One observer of the British
parliament recorded an instance in which the government intended to shut an aircraft
factory, resulting in the loss of 400 jobs in one parliamentary district. The MP
representing the district sent the Defence Ministry more than 250 questions for
written response. Work virtually ceased at the Ministry in an attempt to reply within
103 Ibid., p. 93.
104 United Kingdom, House of Commons, Procedure Committee, Parliamentary Questions:
Third Report of Session 2001-02, p. 10.
105 United Kingdom, House of Commons Information Office, Parliamentary Questions,
106 The constituent workload for MPs, however, is significantly lower than that for Members
of Congress. An Englishman visiting an American friend who was a Congressman was
astonished at the number of constituents writing and visiting Members of Congress. “The
(Englishman) said ‘I wouldn’t think of going to see my MP.’ The American said ‘Well, there
isn’t an American that I know of who does not think that he has a right to walk right into a
Congressman’s office and tell him off.’” Former Speaker Carl Albert, quoted in Anthony
King, “Capitol Hill — a whole lot of people, but no time to talk,” The Listener (Aug. 26,
48 hours. The Defence Minister, who previously had been unwilling to meet with the
MP from the affected district, then did so, and a compromise was reached.107
Participation of High-Level Officials. Some proponents of the current
committee oversight system contend that a question period would result in a greater
number of Cabinet officials taking part in the oversight process. As Representative
Presently, committee chairmen have a very difficult time getting Cabinet
members to come before their committees...[L]ower level staffers and appointees108
Scholars have also noted that it is often subordinate department officials who testify
at hearings.109 If top Cabinet officials knew that they would be making regular public
appearances before all of Congress and (presumably) wide media exposure, it might
induce greater top-to-bottom knowledge regarding the day-to-day workings of the
executive departments among the Cabinet-level leaders. In Canada, for example, it
is widely believed that question time is responsible for producing executive branch
leaders who are exceptionally well-versed in the inner-workings of their respective
A possible secondary benefit of such direct scrutiny of top Cabinet officials is
improved internal oversight within the executive branch departments.111 Cabinet
members might become more watchful of their staffs and their administrative actions,
since the Cabinet Secretaries themselves might be instantly called to account for their
subordinates.112 As one scholar put it,
[P]arliamentary questions take top priority in the departments, for the political
career of the minister depends on how well he is able to meet his adversaries in
the House...[E]very policy of the department must be defended, not merely in113
general terms, but as it affects particular persons and groups.
In Britain, some observers believe this is the primary benefit of question time. One
scholar noted that question time is successful even when the Ministers are evasive
107 Anthony King, The British Member of Parliament (London: McCullen, 1974), pp. 70-80.
108 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules, Congressional Question Period for Members
of the President’s Cabinet, p. 36.
109 Joseph P. Harris, “Legislative Control of Administration: Some Comparisons of
American and European Practice,” The Western Political Quarterly vol. 10. No. 2 (June
110 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules, Congressional Question Period for Members
of the President’s Cabinet, p. 94.
111 Anthony King, The British Member of Parliament (London: McCullen, 1974), p. 70-80.
112 Peter G. Richards, The Backbencher, pp. 109-110.
113 Harris, “Legislative Control of the Administration,” p. 467.
of the questions, because “what [an MP] is trying to do is put the fear of God in the
Procedural Efficiency. One final concern about the committee oversight
system is that it may be viewed as procedurally inefficient. Witnesses appearing
before a committee frequently read, at length, prepared remarks into the hearing
record. Members of the committee generally question the witnesses sequentially.
Since Members often have scheduling conflicts, it is not uncommon for them to be
present for only part of the hearings, and thus, they may inadvertently ask many of
the same questions offered by other Members in their absence. In complex subjects
involving the jurisdiction of several committees, agency heads and other officials
may be required to appear before several committees and subcommittees to respond
to questions which are often duplicative.
Similarly, in comparison with a question time system, the committee oversight
procedures tend not to produce substantial spontaneous interaction between differing
points of view. As observer has noted, “[in the hearing process] there is little
opportunity for interaction among witnesses of varying views. This problem was
highlighted when President Ford forbade Administration witnesses from appearing
at congressional hearings simultaneously with their critics.”115
Inter-Branch Relations. Proponents of a question time also believe it would
promote a more positive relationship between the legislative and executive branches
of the government. Regular availability of the President or executive branch officers
to questions by the Congress might lower the institutional barriers between the
legislative and executive branches. Currently, there is little formal public interaction
between Members of Congress and the executive branch.116 Cabinet officers tend to
testify before a limited number of committees, and consequently, come into direct
contact most frequently with only a limited number of Members. Questions by the
general membership of both Houses would expose Cabinet officers to a wider variety
of congressional opinion. At the same time, executive branch accountability to the
Congress would be emphasized in a visible and public manner.117
From the position of the executive branch, the question period has several
advantages. It could permit increased, direct access to the legislative branch. Member
opinions, suggestions, and complaints could be dealt with in a timely, and public
114 King, The British Member of Parliament, p. 81.
115 U.S. Congress, Senate, Commission on the Operation of the Senate, Overview of the
Senate Committee System, Prepared by Walter J. Oleszek, Committee Print, 94th cong., 2nd
sess. (Washington: GPO, 1976) p. 13.
116 For example, Rep. Alan Wheat stated during the 1992 hearings that “[m]ost people in this
country somehow have the idea or the impression that the Congress has a healthy and
ongoing dialogue with the members of the cabinet. One of things you first learn when you
get here is that you don’t, unless you serve on a committee of jurisdiction that occasionally
has a Cabinet member agree to come in.” U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules,
Congressional Question Period for Members of the President’s Cabinet, p. 35.
117 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules, Congressional Question Period for Members
of the President’s Cabinet, p. 42.
fashion. Executive branch accountability has a corollary: if the question period can
expose inefficient executive management, it can also provide a means for presenting
executive agency successes.118 If the executive agency can convince the House or the
Senate of the need for a specific policy or program, such popular support throughout
the respective Houses could provide the leverage needed to gain agency support,
within or circumventing hostile committees.
Public Stage for Congress. Some proponents of a question period believe
that it could strengthen the political power of Congress as an institution relative to
the executive branch. Scholars and other political observers contend that the
institutional advantages of the Presidency over the Congress, such as unity of thought
and the ability to plan political strategy, have been expanded in the age of mass
media. They argue that the President’s single voice allows him to dominate public
discussion while individual Members of Congress have difficulty even being heard.119
As Representative Gejdenson testified,
It seems to me that we have frankly lost power as an institution, not by any
Supreme Court decision ... but by the fact that the President, no matter who he
is, speaks with one voice and the number of voices that we have here at the
Congress tend to not make for a clear debate. I think a question period would
frankly give Congress more equal footing with the President...in that it would
place us on the same plane, at least with the leading Cabinet Secretary on a120
From this perspective, by placing the executive branch on the same stage as
Congress, two things might occur: first, Congress might come to occupy a stronger
institutional position in the mind of the public. Proponents maintain that by appearing
alongside the President in a position of equality, or perhaps even strength, Congress
might reclaim institutional power lost in the past.
Second, public communication between the legislative and executive branch
about important issues may increase, as well as public attention to key issues. As
Representative Gejdenson testified,
Often, there is such a wide variety of responses from House/Senate Members [to
Presidential issue positions] that you don’t get a real dialogue between the
legislative and executive branches, and that by [instituting a question period] in
the well of the House, without other legislative business going on, it would give121
a very direct focus.
118 Ibid., p. 81.
119 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules, Congressional Question Period for Members
of the President’s Cabinet, p. 44; Samuel Kernell and Gary C. Jacobson, “Congress and the
Presidency as News in the Nineteenth Century,” The Journal of Politics, vol. 49, no. 4 (Nov.
1987), pp. 1016-1035. See also John Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies
(Boston: Little, Brown, 1995), pp. 45-47.
120 Ibid., p. 43.
121 Ibid., p. 44.
Public Interest/Knowledge. Supporters of a question period believe that it
would raise public awareness of contemporary issues and generate increased public
interest in legislative activity and policy options. Many proponents of question time
believe this to be its greatest virtue; even if it has little ability to provide Members
with substantial information from the executive branch, they argue, it certainly makes
for lively debate, which in turn attracts a wider public audience to public affairs.122
Experiences with question time in other countries indicates that it is very
popular among the general public. The parliamentary question period is widely
reported in the British press.123 Question time in Canada is now the most widely seen124
portion of televised Commons proceedings. The C-SPAN network routinely
rebroadcasts question time in both parliaments to its American audience.125 It was
this frequent broadcasting that led Representative Gejdenson to initially suggest his
proposal in December 1990. At the time, he stated, “I think it was Thomas Jefferson126
who said, ‘If the electorate isn’t informed, don’t exclude them, inform them.’”
In addition to raising public awareness about contemporary issues and the
different policy options available, a question time may make Cabinet officials more
readily known to the public. Supporters argue that Cabinet-level officials have
significant authority in the United States, but are largely unknown to the public at127
Criticism of a Question Period
Opponents of adopting a parliamentary-style question period in Congress have
criticized the idea on a number of grounds. These arguments generally assert seven
!that a question period is ill-adapted for non-parliamentary system;
!that a question period is a poor form of oversight;
!that a question period will intensify partisanship;
!that a question period will undermine the committee system;
!that a question period will be generally filled with theatrics and
122 Ibid., p. 79.
123 Questions and answers from Question Time are publicly available on parliament’s
website at [http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/business/questions.cfm], viewed July 14,
2008. Past Prime Minister’s Questions are available for viewing on the Internet at
[http://www.number10.gov.uk/output/Page306.asp], viewed July 14, 2008.
124 Question Period is available for viewing on the internet at [http://parlvu.parl.gc.ca/
parlvuen%2Dca/], viewed July 14, 2008.
125 Timothy J. Burger, “British-Style ‘Question Period’ Would Let All Members Grill
Administration Officials,” Roll Call, Dec. 13, 1990, p. 5.
126 Ibid., p. 5.
127 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules, Congressional Question Period for Members
of the President’s Cabinet, p. 80.
!that a question period may be expensive; and
!that a question period will give the executive branch an unnecessary
forum within Congress.
Non-Parliamentary System. Critics of a question period have argued that
systems such as the one in place in the British parliament are not institutionally
suitable for the American system of government, which is based on separation of
powers between co-equal branches.128 Such objections have been raised on structural,
constitutional, and institutional grounds.
Structural Concerns. As a structural matter, the relationship between
executive officials and the legislature in the American system is different from that
in a parliamentary democracy. The President is neither a Member of Congress nor
entirely reliant on Congress for his governing authority. He is independently elected
and has Constitutional authority separate from Congress. In a parliamentary system,
the Prime Minister derives his authority from the consent of the majority of the
legislature.129 His office is beholden to the parliament; as a political actor, he is
ultimately responsible to the legislature, much the way the Speaker of the House is
beholden to the membership of Congress.
Similarly, department Ministers in parliamentary systems are drawn from the
membership of the parliament. In the United States, Members of Congress are
constitutionally prohibited from simultaneously holding offices in the executive
branch.130 Legislators appointed to Cabinet positions by the President must resign
their legislative office. Thus, the nature of any question period in the United States
— and in particular a question period involving the President — would necessarily
adopt a different institutional character than a parliamentary question period.131
The nature of party governance is also different in the United States than in most
parliamentary systems. In Britain, for example, the government has the implicit
backing of the majority of the legislature; failure to capture a majority on a key
legislative item would signal a loss of confidence in the executive and the need to
call elections.132 In the United States, Members organize into parties, but party
cohesion in the legislature is not necessary to maintain control of the executive
branch. Voters may individually choose to elect a Member of Congress from one
party and a President from another.133 Thus unlike most parliamentary systems, the
American system does not generate a discernable party of government and a clear
128 James Sundquist, The Decline and Resurgence of Congress (Washington, D.C: The
Brookings Institution, 1981), pp. 467-469; Stephen Horn, The Cabinet and The Congress
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), pp. 156; George Galloway, Congress at the
Crossroads (New York: Crowell, 1946), pp. 216-217.
129 Bradshaw and Pring, Parliament and Congress, pp. 369-371.
130 Article I, sec. 6.
131 Dean Acheson, A Citizen Looks at Congress (New York: Harper, 1957), pp. 81.
132 Bradshaw and Pring, Parliament and Congress, pp. 10-15.
133 Ibid., p. 12.
Opposition. As political scientist Hugh Heclo has pointed out, this means “question
periods are therefore unlikely to clarify the fundamental choice as to which party is
more fit to govern.”134
Constitutional Objections. Some critics of a question period have raised
concerns that the constitutionally-based separation of powers doctrine might prohibit
the establishment of mandatory appearances by the President and/or other executive
branch officials before the Congress.135 In particular, because the President is an
independent constitutional office, a presidential question period probably could not
be established without the implicit support of the sitting President. Although Cabinet
members do not have the same constitutionally-based status, it is similarly unclear
whether Congress could establish mandatory appearances for such officials.136
Without any Constitutional duty to appear before Congress upon request, a President
might refuse to appear (or refuse to allow Cabinet Members to appear) unless137
conditions were made so favorable that Congress would no longer be interested.
As a practical matter, subjecting executive branch officials to direct questions
by Members of Congress could increase the frequency with which claims of
executive privilege are invoked as a basis for withholding certain requested
information.138 Such increased use of executive privilege may endanger the success
of the question period as an informational device, and might potentially strain
inter-branch relationships in general.
Institutional Objections. As an institutional matter, critics of a question
period have also raised concerns about the propriety of unelected Cabinet officials
speaking on the floor of the House or Senate. In committee testimony, Hugo Heclo
noted the following:
“[A] question period [that included Cabinet officials] would compromise the
integrity of the floor of the House as a forum for debate among the people’s
134 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules, Congressional Question Period for Members
of the President’s Cabinet, p. 124.
135 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules, Congressional Question Period for Members
of the President’s Cabinet, p. 50.
136 Generally, refusals of Cabinet officers to provide subpoenaed documents to
congressional committees have been resolved by informal agreement between the
committees and the officials rather than by resorting to judicial enforcement. For further
information, see CRS Report RL30240, Congressional Oversight Manual, by Frederick
Kaiser, Walter Oleszek, T.J. Halstead, Morton Rosenberg, and Todd Tatelman, pp. 39-49;
CRS Report RL30319, Presidential Claims of Executive Privilege: History, Law, Practice,
and Recent Developments, by Morton Rosenberg.
137 As one observer has noted, the President might reject any proposal as one that would “put
Daniel into the lion’s den,” in hopes of tricking Congress into offering a system that would
“put the fox in the hen house.” U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules, Congressional
Question Period for Members of the President’s Cabinet, p. 128.
138 For further information on presidential claims of executive privilege, see CRS Report
RL30319, Presidential Claims of Executive Privilege: History, Law, Practice, and Recent
Developments, by Morton Rosenberg.
elected Representatives ... [t]he floors of the House and the Senate ... are the
embodiment of a master idea ... government by discussion ... [which] can be
legitimately carried out only by the elected Representatives of the people. The
floor of the Congress is no place for unelected Presidential appointees to be
sharing in the debate.”139
Representative Robert Michel made similar comments:
Proponents of the Question Period might argue that the House already questions
administration officials in committee, so what difference would it be if we
questioned them on the floor? My answer is that the floor of the House of
Representatives is a special place ... [each] Member on the floor is equal to every
other member. But to have an administration official come to the floor to answer
questions alters the chemistry of the place ... the kind of question period we are
being asked to consider could transform it from a meeting place of equals to an140
A Presidential question period would probably not raise this specific concern,
as the President is an elected official. In addition, the President has historically made
periodic appearances in Congress in times of crisis, and modern Presidents have
delivered their State of the Union address to Congress in person.
Poor Oversight. Significant disagreement exists regarding question period
effectiveness in obtaining information about federal agency programs and
administration. Many observers of the parliamentary question period contend that
Ministers answering questions provide only such information as they want, and that
the information obtained might not warrant the expenditure of time and effort
One of the first things learned by a rising politician in any democracy is how to
artfully avoid giving information he does not want to give. A question period
might elicit some marginal information not now obtainable through
congressional hearings and official news conferences, but I doubt it would be
worth the additional demands of time and energy it would impose on141
British parliamentary observers, it should also be noted, are not uniformly
satisfied with the question period as a device to obtain information about government
139 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules, Congressional Question Period for Members
of the President’s Cabinet, p. 121.
140 Ibid., p. 67.
141 James Sundquist, “Parliamentary Government and Ours,” The New Republic, v. 171
(October 26, 1974), p. 11. In 1980, Sundquist, White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler, and
former Secretary of State William Rogers formed a policy planning group to recommend
structural reforms in the U.S. government to minimize “deadlock” between the Congress and
the President. They did not endorse a question period as part of their reform proposals. See
Committee on the Constitutional System, A Bicentennial Analysis of the American Political
Structure: Report and Recommendations of the Committee on the Constitutional System
(Washington: Committee on the Constitutional System, 1987); Lloyd Cutler and Donald
Robinson, “Breaking our Political Gridlock,” The Washington Post, Feb. 1, 1987, p. D4.
policy. In recent years, proposals have been made to require Cabinet officials not
only to appear for question period, but also to appear before the growing number of
parliamentary standing committees. It is thought that information of a general
character can best be obtained through the question period, but that more detailed
responses could be gathered through ministerial testimony to committee.142
In comparing the investigative tools already available to Congress and to various
parliamentary bodies, some students of parliament and the Congress have rated the
question period as an inferior legislative device. Colin Campbell, a Canadian
academic and former President of the Canadian Study of Parliament group, testified
that “people in parliamentary systems look longingly...to the committee system,
because you can really get into detail in a way you can’t in [a Parliamentary question
system].”143 Similarly, other scholars have noted, because the Congress is more
directly involved in administration of programs — due to hearings, appropriations,
and confirmations — than is the House of Commons, a question period in Congress
would not “carry the punch of an investigative committee on American lines.”144
The committee system also arguably provides a wider set of oversight tools for
Members than simply questioning executive officials. Through hearings, travel, staff
investigations, review of appropriations and authorizations, and other means,
members of congressional committees become specialists on the subjects and
agencies within their committee’s jurisdiction. Committee hearings also give diverse
interest groups and private citizens ready access to the legislative process. A question
period would not involve such outside political actors to make their case regarding
public policy proposals and the implementation of governmental programs.
Of course, a congressional question period would not be the only information
source available to the legislative branch. None of the past proposals consider
replacing the committee system with a question period; instead, they see the two
systems as complementary. Congressional committees would continue to be
responsible for review of executive branch policies. Should a question period be
introduced in Congress, it is likely that committee hearings would continue to focus
on detailed examination of policy issues, and that the question period would feature
broader discussions of issues reflecting the less specialized policy knowledge of
Members not serving on the relevant committees.145
142 There is some support for the belief that British Cabinet Ministers are often chosen for
their parliamentary qualities (how do they handle questions in Commons) rather than for
their administrative capacity. Whether a question period would reinforce a similar view of
American Cabinet officers is subject to discussion. Of course, the effectiveness of Cabinet
officers currently is judged to some degree by their success in dealing with committees of
the Congress. See U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules, Congressional Question
Period for Members of the President’s Cabinet, p. 87.
143 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules, Congressional Question Period for Members
of the President’s Cabinet, p. 93.
144 Bradshaw and Pring, Parliament and Congress, p. 370.
145 R.M. Punnett, British Government and Politics, 3d ed. (London: Heinemann Publishers,
Intensification of Partisanship. Many critics — both in countries with
existing question periods and in the United States — believe that question periods
encourage partisanship and foster unnecessary partisan strife. It has been noted that
Question Time in the British parliament is “debate at its most partisan.”146
During debate on the Kefauver bill in 1944, Representative Clarence Cannon,
a leading parliamentary theorist in the House, claimed the proposal would
unnecessarily increase party strife in the Congress and would upset delicate balances
between the executive and legislative branches.
Such a question hour would degenerate immediately and inevitably into a
political fencing match.... The device would be used for partisan political
advantage.... The questions submitted from the floor ... would probe
excruciatingly into the depths of the rawest nerve centers of current campaign
issues. It would give rise to bad taste, bad manners, and bad blood. Instead of
bringing about better teamwork between the Congress and the executive
departments, it would drive a wedge of discord between the legislative and147
Similar concerns were echoed by Members during the 1992 hearings on the
Gejdenson resolution. Members thought question time “would just be another
opportunity for [the President’s opponents] to try to embarrass the Administration”
and would produce “more heat than light.” Representative Benjamin Gilman
described the idea of bringing Cabinet members to the floor as “an invitation to
partisanship rather than a beneficial addition to the deliberative process.”148
This argument presupposes that Members of the Congress would value political
point scoring more highly than pragmatic inquiry when given an opportunity to
question executive branch officials appearing before the respective Houses. It also
presumes that when presented with a similar opportunity in committees, Members
act with more restraint than they would show on the floor. In rebuttal, an argument
could be framed to assert that there appear to exist adequate rules in both Houses to
enforce decorum and propriety on Members during legislative debate, and such rules
could also be applied during a question period.
Undermining the Committee System. It is likely that any question period
in Congress that involved the questioning of Cabinet members would alter the
practices of the standing committees in the House and Senate. Critics of a question
period for Congress have raised concerns that such systems would undermine
committee jurisdiction, increase the difficulty of getting high-ranking officials to
appear before the committee, and reduce the overall quality of oversight interactions
between Congress and the administration.
146 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules, Congressional Question Period for Members
of the President’s Cabinet, p. 68.
147 House Debate, Congressional Record, vol. 90, part 3 (March 23, 1944), pp. 2014-2016.
148 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules, Congressional Question Period for Members
of the President’s Cabinet, pp. 3-4.
The standing committees of both the House and the Senate might find
themselves sharing oversight responsibility with the entire membership of the
chamber under a system of question time. If all Members were given the opportunity
to ask any questions of Cabinet officials, the agendas of the standing committees
would potentially compete with the policy preferences of individual Members of
Congress. As a remedy, the standing committees might be given the power to control
or pre-clear questions prior to their submission. However, this would arguably
undermine one of the stated advantages of a question time, universal access to the
administration for all Members.
Similarly, the question period could also frustrate administration officials used
to receiving a limited set of committee oversight instructions. An executive
department, accustomed to maintaining frequent consultations with particular
authorizing and appropriating committees of the House and Senate, could suddenly
be faced with substantially different and potentially conflicting indicators of policy
preferences from questions received on the floor.
Of similar concern is the effect of question time on the willingness of
administration officials to participate in committee hearings. Critics note that many
administration officials “already feel harried with the amount of time they have to
spend on the Hill before committees” and might not be amenable to taking part in
both question time and committee oversight hearings.149 During hearings on the
question period in 1992, several committee chairmen submitted written testimony
with concerns about the ability of committees to successfully call administration
witnesses to committee hearings once a question time system was introduced.
An appearance before the House for questioning might allow a Cabinet Member
to argue that that fulfills his or her obligation to appear before Congress, and thus150
resist accepting an invitation from a Congressional Committee.
Finally, a question period might result in a lower quality of interaction between
Members and the administration. Questions from the floor are likely to be more
general in their focus or more concerned with the local impact of proposed policies
than questions initiated in committee hearings. Similarly, some Cabinet Secretaries
may view the question periods as a less valuable forum than committee hearings for
interacting with Members of Congress. There may also be some question by the
agencies about the value of questions from the floor: in dealing with committees, the
agency must respond to generally well-informed questions from Members
knowledgeable about the agency’s duties.
Quality of Debate. Critics of question periods in parliamentary systems often
maintain that in practice the system rarely results in substantive policy debates. As
James Sundquist testified in 1992, “the first thing an MP does in rising in the
ministerial hierarchy is learn how to give a smooth and effective evasion of an
149 Ibid., p. 61.
150 Ibid., pp. 64-65.
unpleasant question.”151 British observers have similarly noted that the question
period often has little substantive value, calling it “the twice-weekly exhibition of
schoolboy humour” and “an undergraduate pastiche of a White House press
conference.”152 MPs have similarly denigrated the substantive value of it. For
instance, one Canadian Member said
Anyone who has participated in question period knows its main purposes are to
embarrass the government, to amuse the tourists and TV audiences, and to make
life easier for reporters. It is a totally ineffective way to elicit significant153
The question period also has been manipulated for political or policy purposes.
In 1971, the British Ministry of Environment distributed prepared questions (for oral
response) to MPs who supported ministry policy, for the purpose of blocking
awkward questions by opposition Members. A parliamentary select committee was
named to investigate the situation and determined that in previous sessions both the
government and the opposition had sought to rig questions. One Minister claimed
that question rigging had become a common practice. Of course, question rigging
cannot be entirely successful. Urgent questions may be submitted if conditions
warrant, and a determined MP whose question is not reached may continue his154
question for oral response at a subsequent appearance by the Minister.
Cost. Opponents of written response questions frequently cite the cost of
providing such a service. In Great Britain, the written responses are generally
provided by senior civil servants. The most recent statistics from the British
government estimate the average cost at £140 (approximately $280) for a written
question and £385 (approximately $770) for an oral question.155 During the past few
years, MPs have asked over 75,000 questions.156 Supporters of a written response
proposal could contend that preparation of written responses within a firm deadline
would cost no more than current, fragmented casework activities already undertaken
by federal agencies in response to congressional inquiries. Moreover, it could be
argued that cost is an insufficient objection when weighed against the duty of
Congress to oversee the administration of the programs it has enacted.
151 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules, Congressional Question Period for Members
of the President’s Cabinet, p. 98.
152 Ibid., p. 82.
153 Ibid., p. 83.
154 Nesta Wyn Ellis, Dear Elector: The Truth About MPs (London: Coronet Books, 1974),
155 Gillian Merron, “Parliamentary Questions,” Legislative Debates, House of Commons,
December 4, 2007 (Hansard c240WH). The increased cost for oral questions reflects the
time and resources required to research and prepare Ministers for supplementals. For
historical estimates of British parliamentary question period costs, see Ellis, Dear Elector:
The Truth About MPs, p. 134.
156 United Kingdom, Parliament, House of Commons Commission, 29th Annual Report:
Financial Year 2006-2007, HC 708 (London: The Stationary Office, 2007), pp. 30-32.
Forum for the Executive Branch. Opponents of a question period in
Congress have often raised concerns that such a system would upset the institutional
balance between Congress and the President, by giving the administration a new
forum to promote its policies and positions, in the heart of the legislative branch.157
Scholars of Congress and the presidency have argued that the rise of mass media,
particularly television media, has given the President a comparative advantage over158
Congress. While the President can employ the resources of the executive branch
to promote his unitary message, individual Members of Congress may lack the
institutional resources to compete with the President, and Congress as a whole lacks
a unity of message.159 The introduction of a televised question period might serve to
increase this presidential advantage.
Opponents also worry about the institutional and partisan balance of a question
time period. Since the President is almost certain to have a significant number of
ideological or partisan allies in Congress, it is likely that a significant portion of the
time for questions and answers would be taken up by pro-administration positions.
As James Sundquist testified in 1992,
Half of the question would be asked by partisans of the administration in power
who would undoubtedly, in baseball vernacular, toss up fat balls for the
[administration] to knock out of the park. The question period would thus give
the administration in power an extraordinary opportunity to score points in160
political debate before a national audience.
Relative to the committee system, the structure of a question period, as
Sundquist notes, also favors the administration. In committee hearings, the legislative
majority can pursue their questions at length, offer commentary, and have the
opportunity for the final word. In most proposals for question periods, this would not161
be the case.
Legislative Considerations for Congress
As has been noted earlier, various format options for a question period exist.
The potential effects, on both the procedures of the legislation branch and the
relationships between the executive and Congress, will vary according to the question
period format selected, and in particular according to the scope of the proposed
question period: whether questions will be written, oral, or both; how often the
157 James Sundquist, The Decline and Resurgence of Congress (Washington, D.C: The
Brookings Institution, 1981), pp. 467-469; George Will, “McCain’s Question Time,” The
Washington Post, May 29, 2008, p. A19.
158 Samuel Kernell and Gary C. Jacobson, “Congress and the Presidency as News in the
Nineteenth Century,”, pp. 1016-1035. See also John Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and
Public Policies, pp. 45-47.
159 Kernell and Jacobson, “Congress and the Presidency,” p. 1017.
160 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules, Congressional Question Period for Members
of the President’s Cabinet, p. 99.
161 Ibid., p. 99.
question period will take place; and whether the question period will include
questions to the Cabinet members or only to the President.
Which Executive Branch Officials? Perhaps the most fundamental
decision about any question period will involve who will be asked to appear. Popular
perceptions in America of parliamentary question periods focus on the oral
questioning of the Prime Minister. Prime Minister’s Questions in England, however,
comprise a tiny fraction of the questioning system. As discussed, past proposals for
question periods in Congress have focused on the questioning of the Cabinet
members, not the President; the Kefauver, Mondale, and Gejdenson proposals called
for the appearance of Cabinet members only.
The involvement of the President, however, is perhaps more likely to produce
the positive effects sought by proponents of the question period. Appearances by the
President would presumably generate greater public interest than appearances by
Cabinet officials. Similarly, appearances in Congress by Cabinet members already
occur in committee hearings; a question period would be a change in format, but not
necessarily a sharp change in practice. A presidential question period, on the other
hand, would be a wholly new development in American politics, and would
presumably have an impact on the practice of politics.
What Form Would Questions Take? A second important question for
Congress to consider is whether question time would include both oral and written
questions. In most parliamentary systems that employ question periods, written
questions vastly outnumber oral questions due to time limitations. Oral questions,
however, generate more public interest and typically involve questions of general
interest and important contemporary public policy.
The Kefauver, Mondale, and Gejdenson proposals differed from the traditional
question period in not providing for written responses to Members’ questions.
Moreover, if a British MP’s question for oral response is not reached, he/she has the
option of accepting a written response to the question in lieu of an oral answer.
Within the limited time provided for oral questions in past American proposals (at
most two hours weekly), few Members of the House and Senate would be able to
receive an oral response.
If oral questions were to be used, a second issue would arise as to whether and
how many unannounced questions would be allowed, either as initial inquiries or
supplemental follow-up questions.
How Often Would Question Time Occur? How much time the Congress
devoted to question periods would also affect the number of government officials
appearing at these sessions. The British House of Commons devotes four hours
weekly to the question period to permit roughly the same number of Cabinet
members as there are in the United States to be questioned once monthly. But the
United States, in addition to Cabinet department heads, has a number of other senior
officials who do not hold Cabinet rank yet influence national policy enormously.
Independent agency heads, directors of government corporations, and senior
presidential staff subject to senatorial advice and consent might all be prime
candidates for appearances at question periods. Yet, none of the earlier proposals has
directly addressed what role, if any, these officials are to play in any question period
How Would Questions be Chosen? Since it is likely that the demand to
ask oral questions will exceed the amount of time available, a system for choosing
among Members questions will probably be needed. Oral questions in Britain are
chosen by the shuffle; pre-clearance is not required either by committee or party.
Both the Mondale and Kefauver proposals tied the administration of the question162
period into the committee system. Questions by Members would first be cleared
by the committee having jurisdiction over the subject area. The Gejdenson proposal
placed the selection of questions with the majority and minority leaders.
Use of the committees to clear questions would potentially allow for a smooth
integration of the question period and the committee system. Committees could select
questions related to current policy and oversight debates within the committee and
project them into public view through the question period. On the other hand, in
subjects which span the jurisdictions of several committees (such as energy policy),
it might be necessary to obtain the approval of a half dozen committees before the
question could be put to the Cabinet official. It might also be unlikely that a
committee would approve inquiries which questioned either the policy attitudes of
the committee majority or of the department when the same party controlled the
Congress and the executive branch.
Use of the majority and minority leaders to select questions would potentially
have the advantage of focusing the question period on the policy differences between
the political parties. Arguably, congressional leaders would be likely to choose
questions of national political prominence which highlight policy differences
between the competing parties. Under such a system, however, rank and file
Members may find themselves left out of the question process. Thus, the use of
chamber leaders as selectors of questions might not be desirable if legislators
perceive question time as a means to allow wider participation in congressional
Use of a random shuffle to choose among questions would potentially allow
greater participation from rank and file or junior Members. On the other hand, a
random shuffle might result in a greater number of questions that were not of general
interest. As occasionally occurs in the British system, Members might use an oral
question to seek a government answer in response to a particular constituent
Would a Question Period be Bicameral? Previous proposals for question
periods in Congress have not provided for joint House and Senate participation. The
Mondale and Gejdenson proposals would have established question periods only in
the Senate and House, respectively. The Kefauver proposals would have established
separate question periods for Members of each chamber. Such separation arguably
162 The Mondale proposal would have also permitted impromptu questions from the floor
with rigid time limits under the divided control of the committee chairman and the ranking
avoids procedural issues that might arise under a combined House and Senate
question period, such as which chamber’s rules would govern the question period and
who would preside. Additionally, a well-attended joint question period might raise
practical concerns about how the full membership of Congress would be
accommodated in (presumably) the House in a manner that is both physically
comfortable and conducive to parliamentary procedure.
On the other hand, a question period involving the President, such as the one
proposed by Senator McCain, might necessitate a bicameral arrangement. Given the
schedule of the President and the logistical complexities of presidential travel, both
the President and Members of Congress may prefer to conduct such a question period
in a joint meeting or session. Such an arrangement would limit the number of
appearances the President would need to make while also allowing for both House
and Senate participation. Other contemporary joint sessions of Congress — such as
the annual joint session for the President’s State of the Union address — might serve
as a logistical and procedural model for policymakers considering bicameral issues.
What Rules Would Govern Floor Procedure? Parliamentary systems that
employ a question period have complex rules regarding both the procedures and
content of questions. For example, in the British system, the rules state that questions
must be succinct, must either seek information or press for action, may not convey
information or advance an argument, and must relate to a matter which is the
responsibility of the Minister addressed. Similar rules are used to keep answers as
short as possible.163
For any question period in Congress, rules would have to be drafted regulating
general question time procedures — such as the number and kind of supplementary
questions which could be answered — as well as specific aspects of floor procedure,
such as the control of time. Legislators might consider adopting entirely new
chamber rules to govern question time, or they might consider conducting question164
time under existing rules for floor debate. Modifying existing rules, however,
might prove just as complicated, or even more complicated, as adopting entirely new165
163 United Kingdom, House of Commons Information Office, Parliamentary Questions,
164 A complete set of rules of procedure for questions might not be necessary. Questions
were a part of Parliament for 150 years before precedents limiting the subject matter and
form of questions were first codified. It was another fifty years (1906) until the first formal
parliamentary rules limiting the number of oral response questions a Member could ask were
first adopted. See Punnett, British Government and Politics, p. 232.
165 For example, the House might consider conducting a question period in the committee
of the whole. Under the five-minute rule, however, typically only a dozen question blocks
could be completed in one hour, as opposed to 25-30 questions disposed of in the British
Commons in roughly the same amount of time. Guidelines would also need to be established
as to whether the five minutes is controlled by the questioning Member, by the responding
Cabinet Secretary, or by the chair.
Issues of civility might also need to be addressed.166 Question Time in Britain
and other parliamentary systems often includes sharp verbal confrontations and
heated exchanges.167 A question period in Congress that followed the British norms
would likely require at least a minimal relaxation of current congressional rules of
decorum during debate.168 Otherwise, concern needs to be taken to require that
written questions and oral supplementals are delivered in a manner consistent with
chamber standards of decorum and civility.169
Question period proposals would also require a general examination of House
or Senate rules of procedure to permit the accommodation of a question routine.
Establishing a regular time for questions in the House, for example, would force a
reexamination of the time spent on other House business.170 Should the length of
daily House floor sessions be expanded to include 45 minutes to one hour of
questions, or should other institutionalized presentations such as one-minute
speeches or special order speeches be curtailed? Expanding session length would
likely cause periods of substantial overwork toward the end of a session or Congress,
while at other periods of relatively light floor schedules, the additional session time
spent on questions may be relatively inconsequential.
Who Would Referee? The enforcement of House or Senate rules might
become more vital if a question period took on the partisan intensity shown in Britain
and Canada. In those parliaments, the Speaker is a clearly recognized non-partisan
— removed effectively from electoral and legislative politics by precedents dating
back (in the British Parliament) more than 200 years. The American Speaker is both
a political leader and a presiding officer, and some observers have doubted whether
intense political exchanges could be effectively managed by any Speaker having this171
dual role. The same complication arise for the Vice President in the Senate.
Furthermore, in the British Parliament (and to a lesser degree in the Canadian
Parliament), clear precedents have long been established regarding the content and
166 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules, Congressional Question Period for Members
of the President’s Cabinet, p. 33.
167 Ibid., p. 33.
168 For example, during a recent British question period the opposition leader stated, “The
Prime Minister has a nerve to lecture me on consistency. I said he was useless a year ago
and I have not changed my mind since. But once again: absolutely no apology, no answer
to the question.” Similarly, the opposition leader declared that “I am beginning to think the
only thing in Downing street with a spine is his book on courage.” David Cameron, question
during Prime Minister’s Questions, July 16, 2008.
169 For example, the typical House procedure for enforcing appropriate standards of debate
is for one Member to “demand that the words be taken down” when another violates debate
standards. Enforcement of debate standards through this procedure could be
time-consuming, and might also serve to heighten partisan feelings in the House.
170 In addition, legislators would need to consider the time of day and day of week when a
question period would occur.
171 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Rules, Congressional Question Period for Members
of the President’s Cabinet, p. 46.
form of appropriate questions, and the rulings of the Speaker are not challenged. In
the U.S. Congress, rulings by the Speaker or Vice President about issues such as the
proper form of questions may increase both partisan feeling and the number of
appeals taken from the Chair’s rulings.
The question period is widely used in parliamentary systems as a means of
informing MPs about the effects of government policies. Parliaments vary widely in
the frequency with which question periods are held and in the number of questions
submitted by Members. The data suggest that establishing a question period is no
guarantee that it will develop into an effective information tool of the legislature.
Although executive branch officials periodically appeared on the floor during
the first Congresses, by the late 1790s the practice had largely ceased. Proposals for
a question period for Congress have been offered with relative regularity beginning
in the mid-19th Century. Initially, the proposals were endorsed by scholars who
sought to increase executive branch influence in the Congress at a time when the
legislative branch was preeminent. In recent decades, the proposal has been offered
as a means to assure greater executive branch accountability during periods of
perceived executive dominance in the federal government.
Whether the question period would be successful in a system of separated
powers depends in large part on the attitude of its participants and on the format the
question period ultimately assumes. The question period has the potential of
involving more rank-and-file Members in the policy-making process, and improving
the means of communication between executive departments and the Congress. It
also could harden relations between the Congress and the Executive, and might
increase the level of partisan controversy in Congress.
In crafting a question period proposal for use in the Congress, attention will
likely be given to balancing the interests of both parties and their leadership, the
concerns of committees, the institutional interests of Congress, and the wishes of the
general membership of the chambers.