WASHINGTON Officially, a hearing this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee was titled "Maximizing Voter Choice: Opening the Presidency to Naturalized Americans."
A constitutional amendment, proposed by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is called the Equal Opportunity to Govern Amendment.
Unofficially, it is the Arnold bill. Or more correctly, the "Awnald" bill, as in Arnold Schwarzenegger, the box office terminator and reigning governor of California.
"Please don't call it the Arnold bill. It's not the Arnold bill," pleaded Margarita Tapia, spokeswoman for the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But to insiders and out, the bill is about Arnold, whose charisma electrified GOP conventiongoers in New York City this summer but who is ineligible to run for president because he was born in Austria. And he personified a quirk in the U.S. Constitution that he is eligible to aspire to any office in the land except president.
"Citizenship, whether by birth or naturalization, is the cornerstone of this nation's values and ideal," said Hatch, chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Supporters of the amendment are quick to point out that the amendment is about much, much more than Schwarzenegger. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm was born in Canada and is therefore ineligible to become president.
Nor can former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeline Albright, nor current Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, nor former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez, who is now running for the U.S. Senate.
"This is also true for the more than 700 immigrant recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, our nation's highest decoration for valor, who risked their lives defending the freedoms and liberties of this great nation," Hatch said. "But no matter how great their sacrifice, leadership or love for this country, they remain ineligible to be a candidate for president."
Article 2 Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution sets the criteria for who can be president. It specifically requires a president to have been born in the United States.
And under that clause, none of the 20 million Americans who became naturalized since 1907 is eligible, no matter their qualifications or patriotism.
"That does not seem fair or right to me," Hatch said.
Several constitutional experts agreed, testifying that the "natural born" requirement is an anachronism carried over from old English law, but never fully embraced by the Founding Fathers who penned the Constitution. Seven of the 39 signers of the U.S. Constitution were born in other countries.
And the Constitution "repudiated this tradition across the board, opening the House, Senate, Cabinet and federal judiciary to naturalized and native alike," explained Akhil Reed Amar, a law and political science professor at Yale University.
It was only added to calm fears during the earliest days of the nation that certain European noblemen were to be invited to become a constitutional monarch.
"Modern Americans can best honor the Founders' generally egalitarian vision by repealing the specific natural-born rule that has outlived its original purpose," Amar added.
Under the terms of Hatch's amendment, a naturalized citizen would be eligible to run for president after 20 years of citizenship.
And Schwarzenegger, who became a naturalized citizen in 1983, would be eligible to run in the next presidential election.
"Some people have argued for or against an amendment because of their feelings about one of these governors (Schwarzenegger and Granholm). In my view, this amendment is about principle, not politics," said John Yinger of Syracuse University."The principle of equal rights for all American citizens should not have an exception based on nativity or on any other indelible characteristic," he said. "And these two governors should be allowed to run for president if they choose to do so."
E-mail: [email protected]