Time To Eliminate The “Natural Born Citizen” Requirement
With all the birther talk these days, it's probably time to question whether we even need the "natural born citizen" rule anymore.
Reacting mostly out of what he admits is frustration over Donald Trump’s resurrection of the birther myth, PBS’s Jon Mecham argues that it’s time to consider removing the requirement that the President of the United States be a “natural born citizen”:
Little is known of the story of the native-born clause. As reconstructed by Akhil Reed Amar of Yale, the provision is rooted in the framers’ fears not of immigrants, who were allowed to hold any other federal office, but in anxieties about imported noblemen.
According to Amar, “In 1787, the more plausible scenario was that a foreign earl or duke would cross the Atlantic with immense wealth and a vast retinue and use his European riches to buy friends and power on a scale that virtually no American could match.” Amar reports that “several months before the constitution was drafted … Confederation Congress President Nathaniel Gorham, had apparently written to Prince Henry of Prussia, a brother of Frederick the Great, to inquire whether the prince might consider coming to the new world to serve as a constitutional monarch.” I don’t know about you, but more than two centuries on I’m willing the roll the dice on a Prussian takeover.
If we were to repeal the clause, we would open the doors to the children of the new America, a nation that began to take shape when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration Act of 1965. Orrin Hatch suggested this almost seven years ago — he was thinking then of a possible Schwarzenegger bid — and you can imagine how far the initiative got. Amendments take time, but this one is worth the effort
Meacham also spoke about the idea on PBS’s News Hour on Friday:
Both Allahpundit and Glenn Reynolds seem to suggest that Meachem is over-reacting here just a little bit, especially to the extent that he calls Trump’s revival of the birther myth a “horror,” while other conservative bloggers seem to be contending that this is proof that Trump is “getting to” liberals like Meacham. I think both points are a bit off the mark. I’ve always tended to think that the birther myth, and it’s continued acceptance by a substantial portion of the GOP base, is a more serious issue than most on the right have treated it. Yes, they’re crazy, and yes the birther myth, like the “secret Muslim” myth is, by and large, motivated by racism, but when politics starts drifting into the area where the opposition is questioning the very legitimacy of the government, it’s something worth paying attention to. Moreover, the necessity to ensure that conservatism doesn’t get taken over by extremists was something that William F. Buckley, Jr. was well aware of in the 1950’s. Today, his lessons regarding the John Birch Society seem to have been largely forgotten. Indeed, the JBS now seems to be gaining respectability in some circles on the right. Allowing groups like this to gain influence means that the movement as a whole moves further away from mainstream America, and that poses some quite obvious electoral problems.
Morever, there is merit in Meachem’s proposal. When the Constitution was drafted, the concern was that men with allegiances to foreign princes, most of whom led nations far more powerful than the newly formed United States of America, would attain positions of power. Because of that, the Constitution required that a member of the House of Representative have been a citizen of the United States for at least seven years, and that a Senator have been a citizen for at least nine years. In the case of the Presidency, only someone actually born in the United States would be considered eligible for the office.
Times have changed significantly since 1789, and the dangers to the United States of a naturalized citizen who could possibly attain the Presidency but for the “natural born citizen” provision are much less than they used to be. Occasionally there have been discussions about the fact that certain candidates who would be ineligible to run for the White House because of this restriction, most recently Arnold Schwarzenegger, although his ultimately failure as Governor of California certainly makes it far less likely that he’d have any future success in politics in California. At this point, a President who was not born in the United States (or on American territory as John McCain was) is not a serious threat to the Republic.
At the same time, though, it seems unwise to open the Presidency to just anyone who happens to have become a naturalized citizen. Rather than eliminating the requirement, it would be better to change it to be more in line with the citizenship rules for Congress, like this perhaps:
No person except
a natural born Citizenone who has been a citizen of the United States for at least twenty years, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.
This provision would ensure that only someone who has been a citizen for at least two decades, and who has spent the majority of that time as a resident of the United States, could be President. It recognizes the greater importance of the Presidency that the Founders intended to convey by making the citizenship requirements for that office more stringent, while still opening the field up just a little bit more. The italicized portion is, of course, largely irrelevant at this point, and was largely meant to ensure that men like Washington, Adams, and Jefferson could be President in the early years of the nation (otherwise the bench would have been theoretically empty).
This is hardly the most important issue facing the country, and hardly the first part of the Constitution I would suggest amending, but Meachem’s argument has merit. Of course, this idea, like every proposed Constitutional Amendment over the past 40 years, is unlikely to go anywhere. Given the super-majorities required to ratify an amendment and the extent to which our political culture is so sharply divided, it seems unlikely that any Constitutional Amendments will be ratified in the near future. Nonetheless, this is a change that strikes me as a good idea.