The idiotic constitutional clause.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Feb. 25 2003 3:57 PM

"Natural-Born" Killer

Abolish the idiotic constitutional clause barring immigrants from the presidency.

Jennifer Granholm: not natural enough
Jennifer Granholm: not natural enough

Any section of the Constitution that kept Henry Kissinger out of the White House can't be all bad, but Article II, Section 1, Clause 5, is pretty close. The clause, which forbids anybody but a "natural-born" citizen from becoming president of the United States, is a national embarrassment.

The discriminatory effects of Article II are not small. The last U.S. Census counted 12.5 million foreign-born, naturalized citizens, about 4 percent of the population. ("Natural born" is not the same thing as American born. John McCain, for example, was born in Panama, but to American parents. He is a "natural-born" American citizen.)

Eliminating the natural-born clause might expand the presidential talent pool and improve the contest. It would almost certainly foster a more ethnically diverse field of contenders. Say you're a Democrat looking for new faces. You might wish for a telegenic, up-and-coming woman with executive experience. What about Michigan's new governor, Jennifer Granholm? Forget it. She was born in Canada. Maybe you think a Democratic ticket should include someone with business experience. How about liberal billionaire philanthropist George Soros as a candidate? Nope. He was born in Hungary.

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If you're a Republican tired of candidates named Bush, don't bother weighing the presidential potential of Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. She was born in Taiwan. Perhaps you think it's high time the GOP cultivated a Hispanic candidate for the Oval Office, someone like Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez from Florida. Sorry, he was born in Cuba. Do you yearn for another charismatic Californian with proven screen appeal a la Ronald Reagan? There will be no President Schwarzenegger: His Austrian origins bar him.

No natural-born requirement exists for the vice presidency, but constitutional scholars agree that an immigrant vice president could not assume the presidency upon the death or incapacitation of the president. This effectively prevents an immigrant vice presidential candidate, since the entire purpose of the veep is to be able to succeed the president.

The actual effects of the natural-born clause are not as important as its symbolism. Barring immigrant citizens from the White House is a pointless insult. Such nativism is weirdly out of place in the charter of a multicultural nation where immigrants run our largest businesses, command our armies, and preside over our courts. The natural-born clause elevates the accident of birth over the accomplishments of the individual. It compromises the American faith that social mobility and openness foster national strength.

The natural-born clause has an unimpressive pedigree. Stanford historian Jack Rakove says it was drafted by a committee at the 1787 constitutional convention, which was charged with designing a chief executive position for the new American government. The language was "silently inserted into what became Article II and was adopted without debate" by the constitutional convention, Rakove says. Nor was the provision discussed during the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, he adds.

The founders' motivation, Rakove says, "was almost certainly the fear of foreign influence over an official who would be commander in chief of the armed forces and would have significant foreign relations duties and so on."

But if there is a risk of undue foreign influence on the president, a proposed constitutional amendment introduced in 2001 by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., would take care of it. Under the language of House Joint Resolution 47, anybody who had been a citizen for 20 years would be eligible for the White House. Frank plans to reintroduce a version of the bill this year.

It doesn't take a Karl Rove to recognize that abolishing the natural-born clause could be a winning political issue for either party. The most immediate beneficiaries of eliminating the natural-born clause would be Hispanics, the country's largest ethnic minority. For Republicans, such a constitutional amendment would give substance to their rhetoric of inclusion. For Democrats, it would signal to Hispanics that the party is serious about expanding opportunity for immigrants. For either party to take the lead in pushing for Congress and state legislatures to approve HJR 47 would encourage the other to get on board, if only in self-defense.

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