Spontaneity is Overrated

The Demand Question Time petition -- now with more than 20,000 signatures -- has made it to the far reaches of President Obama's inner circle and GOP House leadership.  If you haven't signed yet, you should.

The responses to the petition indicate support from both parties on the merits, a more civil, open dialogue between our leaders in Washington. Let's talk, says President Obama.  Let’s talk, says Minority Whip Cantor. Let's talk, says Majority Leader Reid.

Yet, so far, since the appearance of President Obama at the House Republicans retreat on January 29, each party seems mostly to be talking amongst itself.

President Obama has embarked on a dialogue tour of sorts recently, stepping up his accessibility to the rank-and-file in his party.  In the three weeks since the retreat, Obama participated in a moderated CitizenTube interview with questions submitted on YouTube, conference call with DNC/Organizing for America members and made a rare appearance at the White House press briefing.

Since the 2008 election, Republicans have taken to YouTube as their conversation outlet -- 89 percent of congressional Republicans (compared to 74 percent of Democrats) have YouTube channels, according to a 2009 year-end report on CitizenTube. People are listening – the Republican channels draw more views with eight of the top 10 most-viewed and most-subscribed YouTube channels in Congress from the GOP.

As for regular question time, “The thing that made Friday interesting was the spontaneity," [President Obama's top advisor David] Axelrod told Politico. "If you slip into a kind of convention, then conventionality will overtake the freshness of that."

Boehner said about the retreat, “the president’s acknowledgment that he has read our policy proposals should stop every Democrat  … from repeating their discredited ‘party of no ideas’ talking point,” but as for Demand Question Time, “we’ll look at this proposal." Cantor meanwhile told NPR, “Absolutely,” we should do more of that.

This suggests that GOP leadership might consider a proposal that allows Republicans, who have little procedural power in Congress, to present ideas.

Last week, the President issued a challenge to Republicans to present ideas on health care at a "bi-partisan" health care summit. Republicans have ideas that they can’t get heard as the minority party in Congress. Does this summit meet the need for open, bi-partisan dialogue?

Not so fast. 

The White House has set the agenda with limits on how Republicans can approach the discussion. For example, off the table is the suggestion that the Democratic version of health care reform be scrapped for an incremental approach.  Senate GOP leadership and Boehner and Cantor are understandably skeptical about this summit as nothing more than an opportunity for the White House to strongarm leadership to pass their plan.

Today, they issued a call of their own, on the issue of their choosing, jobs.  This challenge targets the House Democratic leadership – who has yet to get in on the dialogue action – to a televised debate on how to address crippling unemployment rates.

So now we have arguments over how to argue and what to argue about. Two steps back it seems.

If there is hope for serious question time, spontaneous, scattershot events are not sufficient.  Without a commitment to a format, regular schedule and a fair set of terms, we are stuck with business as usual in Washington.  And business as usual right now is both uncivil and unpopular. 

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