COMMENTARY: The presidency is unique; keep it that way

The controversy over GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s eligibility for office has brought attention to the natural-born-citizen component of Article II of the Constitution. Whereas The Washington Post’s columnist Ruth Marcus and that newspaper’s editors have advocated the abolition of the provision, others like Delaware Law School professor Mary McManamon have cited it as disqualifying based on Cruz’s birth in Canada. This article makes the case why the aforementioned requirement should remain.

While it is true that the natural-born-citizen provision restricts who can serve as U.S. president, so do other features found in the Constitution. For instance, to serve as chief executive, a person must reach 35 years of age by inauguration. Additional compulsory features include being a resident of America for 14 years, taking the oath of office, and the prohibition against a title of nobility or receiving emoluments while in office.

Similarly, there is a minimum age requirement for Congress; all officials serving in national or state government must take an oath to support the Constitution; and other national personnel and state officials are also forbidden from accepting a title of nobility while in office. The vast majority of Americans regard these qualifications and stipulations as reasonable, according to Gallup Poll surveys.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

To the criticism that the natural-born citizen-requirement is anti-democratic and elitist, so is the Electoral College mechanism for selecting the president. Yet, that procedure has withstood thousands of proposed amendments to eliminate it, together with controversial elections like 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000.

In contemporary times, the Electoral College tally for president usually coincides with and strengthens popular-vote results, giving the appearance of a mandate. It likewise protects state interests in that each state has an equal vote should no candidate earn a majority of electoral votes in the general election for president.

The natural-born-citizen requirement is still far less limiting than the bloodline used in constitutional monarchies for deciding who is sovereign. A naturalized American citizen can still serve as a state governor, member of Congress, and in most other elective and appointed offices. The nature of American federalism lends itself to furnishing a plethora of opportunities for government service.

At the time of the adoption of the Constitution, the framers of U.S. government were worried about negative foreign influence on the nascent nation, and that must be acknowledged as part of the reason for the inclusion of the natural-born-citizen stipulation. However, potential foreign interference was not the only reason for the inclusion of the feature.

The Constitution created a branch not in the previous national government. It also limited the president to a single person, unlike the reality in most states during the Articles of Confederation, when governors shared most powers with a committee. So, while other parts of the Constitution sought to mimic the institutions present elsewhere in the world, the presidency was and is still viewed as special and deserving of such a feature.

For those who wish to keep tradition alive while adapting to modern circumstances, the solution is simple. Instead of bemoaning a favorite facet of the presidency which until now has seen little interest and fewer proposals to change, we ought to leave the natural-born-citizen provision alone and tackle the real crux of the problem: the 22nd Amendment.

Now there is a limitation that has done more to diminish the power and prestige of the presidency than any credential. The Framers purposely kept the length of the president’s term short, but simultaneously furnished perpetual re-election capability. Taking that away makes the president a lame duck on the first day of a second term and results in an unacceptable disparity in the length of service relative to those serving in other branches of government, where no limits on overall service exist except through resignation, death, impeachment, or removal.

With the natural-born-citizen feature, the presidency will remain the focus of national pride and unity. Let’s not fix something that is doing just fine. The presidency is indeed unique; let’s keep it that way.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. He has taught and published extensively on the American presidency.

Dr. Hoff served in congressional staff positions from 1978 through 1985.

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