`Sound Bites' Give Indigestion Gephardt Urges Formal Debates, Questions for President

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Decrying "sound-bite" politics, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt called Tuesday for both British-style debates and "question periods" with the president in Congress.

"Increasingly, we are losing our capacity to conduct a rational, deliberate, and civil discourse on a whole range of vital issues," Gephardt said in a speech to the Center for National Policy, a think tank.

Two of those issues, Gephardt said, are the debates over health care and the North American Free Trade Agreement - in which, he contended, too many "rely on emotional phrases, catchy sound bites and visual excitement."

Gephardt, D-Mo., said, "We must modify and expand television's coverage of the Congress - and government in general - to enhance in-depth questioning and development of national policy."

Toward that end, the majority leader suggested:

Initiating "Oxford-style" debates in the House, with four-person teams of opponents and proponents allowed to cross-examine each other's statements and positions on issues.

Gephardt said such debates - to be held at least once a week - would add depth to the usual "speechifying," the two- or five-minute sound bites that dominate the House floor.

Invite the president to "come to Congress for a question period from time to time," in addition to the usual practice of addressing joint sessions of Congress at least once a year.

Such question periods - unprecedented in U.S. history - might resemble the "question time" that Britain's prime minister undergoes twice a week in the House of Commons. But Gephardt said the president's appearance would be voluntary - and far less frequent.

"It would be great `theater,' great `pictures' - and it would make for better public policy," Gephardt said.

President Bill Clinton and his White House aides seriously considered the "question period" idea after Gephardt first broached it in February. But sources said that House Speaker Thomas S. …