Hatch’s “Foreign-Born President” Amendment

Our Constitution has stood the test of time. It has served our country well, guiding it through times of war, peace, prosperity and depression. As a conservative I do not want it changed without good reason. One worthy reason is protecting marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman, a definition in consonance with Christian tradition that has proven itself sufficient for centuries.

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) has proposed to amend the Constitution to allow naturalized Americans to become President. If his amendment were adopted any person who had been a United States citizen for at least twenty years would be eligible to hold the Presidency. This is not a new idea. However, Senator Hatch’s proposed amendment places emphasis on contemporary political leaders who otherwise never would be eligible to become President.

Perhaps no better person could refute the proposed Hatch Amendment than the late Balint Vazsyoni, Director of the Center for the American Founding. I had the honor of knowing this gentleman, a concert pianist who came to our country from his native Hungary while it was under Communist rule. More than most, Vazsyoni appreciated the wisdom that was displayed by the Founding Fathers in framing the Constitution and our country’s unique heritage of offering freedom and liberty to all people. Vazsyoni witnessed for himself and knew of the damage done to countries whose guiding principles were set — often arbitrarily — by despotism and the ideologies of fascism and Communism.

A hearing by the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution was held on July 24, 2000 to review amending the Constitution to allow foreign-born citizens to become President. Vazsyoni both testified in person before the Subcommittee and submitted prepared remarks.

Vasyoni noted that the Founding Fathers created three branches of government and placed no stricture requiring citizenship to become a member of the Legislative or Judicial Branch. However, power is centralized in one person in the Executive Branch. Vazsyoni insisted that he did not view it to be an “excessive requirement” to have a native-born American to hold that one office. America presents immigrants with a great deal of leadership opportunities.

In his prepared remarks, Vazsyoni stated: “It is well known that the Founding Fathers were mindful in the extreme of foreign influences, and the dangers therein to the Republic. While experience has shown that a native-born Chief Executive is not necessarily immune to foreign influence, the odds are certainly more favorable if the president [sic] is an American plain and simple, who has never been, and is not at the time of taking office, anything else.”

The proposed Hatch Amendment comes at a time when there is a great deal of speculation about the political future of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. No doubt some Americans consider him to be an “exceptional” leader given his dramatic rise in politics. He would not be permitted to hold the Presidency — assuming the Hatch Amendment were not ratified — but certainly would be eligible to be a United States Senator. However, many people would cite him as a case that demonstrates the unfairness of the Constitutional restriction.

In his prepared remarks Vaszyoni made very clear that “the laws of this country never have been written with the exceptions in mind. Among other things, the Framers of the Constitution distinguished themselves by writing few laws, and employing language at once broad and concise, so as to be applicable to all circumstances at all times.”

Many would be right to harbor suspicion that a foreign-born President would tilt U.S. foreign policy one way or another toward his native country. For instance, if a native-born Cuban, now a naturalized U.S. citizen, became President and we invaded Cuba to topple Castro, that act alone would most likely be a very divisive political issue. The intensity of the debate is certain to become magnified when the President’s loyalty is questioned. Was he acting to settle old scores? Or was he acting in the true interest of our country? The Founding Fathers in writing the Constitution made sure that question need never be asked.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), a proponent of amending the Constitution along the lines recommended by Senator Hatch, commented in a December 12, 2004 Miami Herald story that the Constitution “tells immigrants that they are somehow flawed.”

From a world view America has been uncharacteristically generous in offering immigrants opportunities and freedom. Certainly my own father knew this, having left Germany in the 1920s when it was experiencing economic turmoil in the wake of World War I. Undoubtedly Governor Schwarzenegger knows the generosity of this country. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL), who is Constitutionally prohibited from ever holding the Presidency, has stated: “I don’t know of any other country where the electoral process is so open to foreign-born citizens.” Our country still offers freedom and opportunity to legal immigrants and it should remain that way.

Senator Hatch is quite serious about his proposal and in fact one Democrat staff member of the Senate Judiciary Committee told me that the Senator met with his Democratic Judiciary Committee on that committee to discuss combining his amendment with a removal of the two-term limit on the Presidency. The thinking is that the addition of removing the two-term bar on the Presidency would be a sweetener to Democrats who would see it as a way to put Bill Clinton — an electable Democrat with proven national popularity — back in the White House.

The Senator’s press spokesperson denied that the Senator has given serious thought or even entertained combining the two measures. He could not say with complete certainty that Senator Hatch has not been in a meeting in which the subject was broached by Senate Democrats, inasmuch as meetings between members of opposite parties occur all the time in the Senate.

Ratifying a Constitutional Amendment is a lengthy procedure. My colleague, Marion Edwyn Harrison, Esq., President of the Free Congress Foundation, summarized it succinctly last year when he wrote “the House and Senate must each pass a proposed amendment by a two-thirds vote and then 38 of the 50 States must ratify it — and all within whatever time frame, if any, is legislated as part of the package.” Our Founding Fathers intended it that way. Changes to the principles upon which our nation is governed are not to be made in haste or with great frequency.

There are some changes that were important to the Constitution. Constitutional Amendments deserve serious review on a case-by-case basis. In this case, however, there is no need to amend the Constitution.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.