Max Steinbaum: What Uncle Sam could learn from Johnny Canuck

Tuesday, September 17, 2019 - 2:44pm

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The Michigan Daily

It’s 2:15 p.m. on a Tuesday in May, and most of Canada’s federal legislators have taken their seats in the House of Commons chamber. Geoff Regan, a member of Parliament for West Halifax, dressed in the barrister robes of the Speaker of the House of Commons, rises from his stately speaker chair at the end of the aisle dividing the governing Liberal Party from the minority opposition. “Oral questions,” Regan pronounces, before repeating himself in French. He yields the floor to Andrew Scheer, the leader of the Conservative Party and the Question Period is underway.

The controversy of the day is a scandal involving Mark Norman, a former vice admiral in the Royal Canadian Navy. Norman, of the Canadian military, was charged with  a breach of trust in March 2019 for allegedly leaking sensitive information about a shipbuilding contract. For months, the Conservatives have accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration of unjustly assailing Norman for the leak, and even of political interference as Norman’s case developed.

Scheer stands and looks across the aisle at Trudeau. “The prime minister has finally decided to answer some questions on the Mark Norman affair,” Scheer says with a smile. “He’s had plenty of time to rehearse the script and memorize the lines. What I’d like to know is ... why the government went through such efforts to prevent the truth from coming out.”

Scheer’s riled Conservative colleagues rise and applaud. Trudeau, who had been staring Scheer down during his diatribe, buttons his black blazer and prepares to speak. The prime minister then stands and, beginning his response, a chorus of Conservative heckling nearly drowns him out.

These raucous showdowns are a near-daily occurrence in Ottawa, and are even a cornerstone feature of Canadian democracy. But such a debate 700 miles south between Democrats and Republicans — much less U.S. House Speaker Pelosi and President Donald Trump — is almost unimaginable. A cause of this difference, of course, is the respective structures of the American and Canadian governments. Canada’s parliamentary system comes from the Westminster model that evolved in London, under which the leading party in the House of Commons — the equivalent to our House of Representatives — selects a member of its ranks to serve as prime minister. In this way, a parliamentary system intertwines executive and legislative functions, making the country’s head of government more responsible to the legislative branch.

Under the United States’s presidential system, the executive and legislative branches are independent by design. A presidential system has its merits, such as the right of a country’s constituents to vote directly for the chief executive — an ability not afforded by a parliamentary system. A glaring drawback, however, is that our legislative branch is far less able to readily hold the president accountable. The U.S. president is not required to listen and respond to the accusations of a hostile Congress. So why would he? In fact, the president  only enters Congress once a year for the prepared State of the Union address and never responds to the questions and concerns of representatives. 

The consequences of having no forum for debate between the president and legislators include having less ways to hold America’s chief executive accountable to Congress and fewer observable interactions between our president and lawmakers. It’s a stark contrast to the Canadian Parliament, where the prime minister’s presence at Question Period is an expectation, and where Trudeau has been slammed for a poor attendance record in the past — which evidently means appearing a scant once or twice a week. 

It must be acknowledged, of course, that little legislative progress is actually made during Question Period.  It’s more of a circuitous shouting match than anything productive, concedes Canadian news magazine Macleans’s Aaron Wherry, but it’s still “an essentially wonderful thing. Each afternoon, the government of the day must face the criticism and scrutiny of its nearest rivals in an open and only barely restrained public forum.” If nothing else, Question Period forces Canada’s leaders to engage each other on a daily basis, and its broadcast provides the Canadian public with constant insight into the political affairs of the day.

From my frequent summer visits to the public balcony above the Commons floor, “QP,” as my Canadian colleagues called it, seemed to be evidence of a robust and healthy democracy. I regretted that there was no American analogue, and more so that such an easily-implemented practice will likely never become a feature of our democracy.  

As it turns out, the idea of Congress hosting the president and cabinet members in a QP-style forum has historical precedent. “At various times,” details Matthew Glassman of the Congressional Research Service, “proposals have been offered by American scholars and public officials to increase the formal contact between the executive branch and Members of Congress.” Even as recently as 2009, then-candidate for president Sen. John McCain stated 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.” 

It is high time we revisit the question of Question Period. In March 2019, a Quinnipiac poll found that 65 percent of Americans feel Trump is not honest. Such a condemnation of our current president’s integrity, it seems, translates to a public desire for more executive accountability.

In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville praised American democracy and its “matchless Constitution.” We have long adhered to notions of American exceptionalism as articulated by de Tocqueville, forged by an enduring trust in the governmental system created by the Founding Fathers. This faith, while well-placed, has made Americans reluctant to introduce changes to our democracy — and, too often, we irresponsibly regard revision as unnecessary. In reality, we must be willing to borrow effective ideas in response to modern concerns.

After all, while de Tocqueville considered America exceptional, he also did not believe it was beyond reproach. “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation,” de Tocqueville wrote, “but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

Max Steinbaum can be reached at maxst@umich.edu.