By LEE H. HAMILTON
“I ask how and why this decision was reached,” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said in the Senate recently. He was calling for an investigation into President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. forces out of Syria. “Was there no chance for diplomacy? Are we so weak and so inept diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States of America?”
Good questions, but here’s a wager: If the Senate does launch an investigation, would you bet that Romney or any other senator will even get close to posing them directly to the president? I didn’t think so.
We have a presidential accountability problem that has significantly worsened over the years. We’re losing — or maybe we’ve already lost — the ability to call presidents to account on a regular basis for their actions, their conduct, and the way they fulfill the responsibilities of office. Sure, we have the big guns: an election after the first term, in which voters could choose to end a president’s time in office, and impeachment, in which members of Congress can choose to do the same. But these are drastic one-time steps, hard to employ and infrequently available.
What I’m talking about is a way for knowledgeable people to step beyond the White House’s control of presidential appearances, ask tough questions, and get real answers so that the American people can judge the president’s actions and reasoning. Instead, these days presidents appear only in highly structured circumstances, avoid specificity and candor, and sidestep detailed discussion of the issues and policies they’re pursuing.
It didn’t used to be this way. When Franklin Roosevelt was president, he would call the Washington press corps into the Oval Office and hold extended conversations. Reporters could ask anything they wanted; Roosevelt of course used them for his own purposes, but the press corps had plenty of opportunities to hold his feet to the fire.
When more formal press conferences took hold, they were frequent and generally free-wheeling affairs. Americans learned a great deal both about the men who inhabited the Oval Office and their thinking. Over time, however, press conferences became infrequent, stage-managed performances. All of us remember Ronald Reagan walking by a group of reporters, holding his hand up to his ear and answering only the questions he wanted while claiming he couldn’t hear the rest. President Obama held only a handful of formal gatherings with the press each year. President Trump holds almost no solo press conferences.
So how do we get the president to outline the thinking behind a policy? Or go into details on what led to a given decision? How do we even ask a president questions these days, or more importantly, ask the follow-ups? Even when presidents do hold press conferences, they rarely answer the follow-up questions that actually pin them down on what they’re doing; instead, they move on to the next questioner. They like to appear they’re being fair. Really what they’re doing is avoiding more pointed second questions.
I contrast this with the British “question time,” which takes place for an hour four days a week, in which government ministers — including the prime minister — must face questions from members of Parliament. It would be refreshing to see a president put in a position where he or she had to answer questions about policy and politics in public, with no restraints on what could be asked. When I was in Congress, I actually submitted a bill to this effect; it was pretty much laughed out of the room.
But the principle holds. True, when Congress is working properly it can hold presidents and their administrations accountable through hearings, probes, and formal investigations. These are vital, but they don’t offer a regular window into what’s going on, and they don’t have the president him- or herself answering questions before the American public.
Simply put, that’s what we should be doing: On a regular basis, presidents should have to answer questions about their thinking and their policies, put to them by people who know enough to dig deep. In a representative democracy, that’s how we citizens can judge whether our chief elected leader is representing us and living up to his or her responsibilities.
(Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)