Why is British House of Commons debate so different from US House?

Back in the day, I watched CSPAN’s occasional broadcasts of “question time” or such that went on in the UK House of Commons. I noted that the repartee/debate was very well spoken, witty comments and intelligent questions (considering it was still politics of course), where the backbench members would react with groans or ‘hear hear’.

Then, watching the US House of Representatives, it seemed like a funeral, quiet, with sort of non stop posturing, slower rate of functioning and speaking, and was nothing more than a series of nonstop procedural comments and 5-minute long political speeches spoken not for the debate, but to look good back home and avoid saying anything that would offend the average joe voters.

So WHY are the two styles so different? Especially since a good number of Americans are of British ethnic origin. Why can’t Americans debate in the same way–is it on purpose, or just the way things turned out?

One difference is that the House of Commons chooses the head of government, so it’s not just a legislature but a kind of electoral college too. That means that the prime minister and the cabinet have to continually prove themselves in from of the Commons, and there’s an alternate PM and cabinet facing them in the debates.

What you see of the British parliament is Prime Minister’s Questions. It’s a bit of political theatre, not really representative of day-to-day parliamentary proceedings, which are much drier and played to a largely empty and unwatched house. The extent to which PMQs matter is debatable - former Tory leader William Hague was adept at lampooning Tony Blair over the despatch box, but it didn’t do him much good at the election.

I presume by ‘watching the US House of Representatives’, you’re seeing the equivalent of the most unwatched TV channel in history, BBC Parliament.

I love that show! “Order! Order!”

My mind boggles trying to imagine our President facing this sort of questioning by his political opponents every week.

I think we’d be better off if we did have something like PMQ here. :frowning:

Hear, hear!

It would be good to see him appear on Question Time, where they really do get tackled with real questions, and in some cases shame themselves by simple incompetence. On other occassions, somebody who you had no time for can be very impressive, or an individual may take a particular line on a topic which you didn’t expect.

He couldn’t–that’s the point. He totally lacks the intellectual ability. That’s one of the reasons I think for the difference between the House and the House of Commons – We are stuck with the idiots who get elected with focus groups, consultants, and memorized sound bites.

Yes, but the separation occurred long before parliamentary democracies developed the modern “question period”. There was little opportunity for a similar evolution in America, since the President isn’t constitutionally answerable to Congress.

However, John McCain has said that

I think it was William Saffire (the language columnist )who once said that there are 2 truly great things about watching Parliament at work:
1: the mastery of the English language
2: you get to watch grown men shuffling their feet in unison. :slight_smile:

and, a question for our British friends:
is the expression “hear,hear” or “here,here” ?
(I suppose that “hear” means “yes, we hear you, and agree”.
But “here” could mean, “yes, we folks over here on the bench agree with you, too”)

‘Hear hear’, having its origin in ‘hear him, hear him’, i.e. listen to that guy, he’s talking sense. Apart from simple tradition, one reason you hear it is the ban on applause in the house.

It’s “Hear, Hear!” as in “We hear you and agree/Hear this man speak, for he makes some excellent and agreeable points”.

I think we need it here for Great Debates:

“The honorable member for Obamatown is a fuckwicket, Mr Speaker, and I call the honourable member for Obamatown a fuckwicket, Mr Speaker…”

“The Member for McCainville will withdraw that comment.”

“Mr Speaker, I merely refer to the fuckwicket opposite…”

“The Member for McCainville wtll resume his seat…”
The Merkins don’t know what they’re missing. :smiley:

Can I just note that it’s really ironic that this interesting political question is being asked by someone who has shown such clear contempt for political science elsewhere, when it’s especially political scientists that are in a good position to shed some light on this question?

Ah, the wonders of Absolute Privilege. :smiley:

For those of you in the US, Absolute Privilege- AKA Parliamentary Privilege- is the right of someone speaking in Parliament in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and (I believe) Canada, to say whatever the hell they like without (civil) legal repercussions.

In English, it means you can’t be sued for libel, slander, or defamation based on anything you’ve said in Parliament. Nor can anyone reprinting or rebroadcasting what you’ve said in good faith as a fair commentary or reporting of events (ie Hansard or a newspaper quoting you) be sued for defamation/libel/slander etc. A lesser form of Privilege also applies for Court Cases, and the idea behind it all forms the basis of a Frederick Forsyth short story entitled, appropriately, Privilege.

But of course, you must recall that the right to say whatever you want and not get sued is tempered by the much stricter bounds of parliamentary decorum, which are ruthlessly enforced by the Speaker (at least in Canada). The principle is not that there are no rules but that the Commons (governed by the Speaker) makes its own rules. As a member of the Canadian House of Commons, you may not:

*call another member a liar or say that they are lying;
*use other unparliamentary (offensive, provocative, or threatening) language;
*note anyone’s absence from the house;
*address anyone other than the Speaker in the first person;
*cast aspersions on the Queen, the Royal Family, the Governor General, members of the judiciary, the Speaker, or Parliament or either of its houses;
*read from a prepared speech (except in certain circumstances);
*use props or exhibits of any kind;
*or even refer to anyone by name (in the Commons).

For more information, see House of Commons Practice and Procedure by Marleau & Montpetit, the locus classicus for this information.

We also have “privilege” in the US–“for any Speech or Debate in either House, (a member of Congress) shall not be questioned in any other Place”.

However, we don’t have the same Parliamentary protocols–members of Congress regularly read prepared speeches, discuss absences, cast aspersions on the President, and even (gasp) use props. I’ll never forget Al D’Amato, during the 1993 Jurassic Park craze, criticizing Clinton’s tax bill with an especially lame mock-up of a “Taxasaurus”.

A lot of those also apply in the British parliament, certainly the “liar” thing. Do you also have the convention that the upper house is not to be referred to by name? Here, the two houses refer to each other as “the other place” or “another place”.

Home sick one day, years ago, I stumbled upon C-span and watched, open-mouthed, while Senator Brownback from KS (?) spoke at great length and completely pointlessly on the merits of St Valentine’s Day. Our tax dollars at work…