WASHINGTON – A couple of congressional lawmakers regard as antiquated an article of the Constitution that insists presidents be native-born United States citizens, and want to change the rule to allow foreign-born Americans to run for the nation's highest office.
In July, Sen. Orrin Hatch (search), R-Utah, proposed legislation that would allow anyone who has been a U.S. citizen for 20 years to run for president.
Skeptics have called it the "Arnold Amendment," suspecting that Hatch was simply clearing the way for the Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger — who had not yet signed on for the California gubernatorial election when the bill was introduced — to make a bid for the White House.
The ban on naturalized citizens seeking the presidency was originally crafted 216 years ago out of fear that a British citizen, such as the son of King George III, could become president but continue to be loyal to England.
Nations such as Poland have suffered from having foreigners installed as their chief executive. But some say these fears are outdated.
“That protection was instituted at a time when our country was in its early stages, not knowing how it would survive,” said American Enterprise Institute (search) research associate John Fortier.
“Today we are strong enough and have had a number of people in very high positions" not born in the United States that it is no longer a major concern as long as there are sufficient protections regarding the amount of time the individual has been a citizen.
But others say allowing foreign-born citizens the right to become president opens a large can of worms.
Hatch's proposal is “a betrayal of the very principles and ideals that our Founding Fathers had when they created this nation. Such a move clearly opens this nation up to foreign intrigues," said Constitution Party Chairman Jim Clymer, whose national party wants "to limit federal government to its constitutional boundaries."
Many foreign-born citizens have held very high political positions, including those in the line of presidential succession. Henry Kissinger, born in Fürth, Germany, and Madeleine Albright, native to Prague, Czechoslovakia, were each fourth in the line of succession to the president, presenting the possibility for a leadership crisis.
Currently, two Cabinet secretaries, Mel Martinez and Elaine Chao, are in the presidential succession line but as a result of being foreign-born would not be able to take the job should a crisis occur and they were catapulted to the top.
Hatch called it “decidedly un-American” to bar foreign-born Americans from the White House.
“Ours is a nation of immigrants,” he said on the Senate floor when he introduced his legislation, citing Albright, Kissinger, Chao, Martinez and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (search), who was born in Canada.
“None of these well-qualified, patriotic United States citizens could be a lawful candidate for president,” Hatch said.
Hatch’s measure would require naturalized citizens be residents in America for 14 years and citizens for 20 years. A House version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., would require a candidate to have been a naturalized citizen for 35 years.
Both measures would require a constitutional amendment, which needs two-thirds support in the House and Senate and ratification from three quarters of state legislatures. Only 27 amendments have been made to the Constitution, the most recent in 1992.
Though the possibility of the law changing is "not on anybody's radar screen," some experts warn that sponsors of the law ought to think twice about it.
When he proposed the bill, Hatch may have been thinking of Schwarzenegger, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, but he may not have considered the consequences.
Schwarzenegger, a popular star who could do well in California, is considered too liberal to get a Republican nod for president. But Granholm, a Democrat who has the making of a viable presidential candidate, is probably not the person Hatch would want to see in the top office.
“Hatch is not thinking this through. He is not paying attention to the old Chinese proverb: ‘Be careful what you wish for,'” Sabato said.