Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Birther Bill

Today's Doonesbury cartoon calls attention to H.R. 1503, the "Birther Bill," which would require a presidential candidate's campaign committee to file with the FEC "a copy of the candidate's birth certificate, together with such other documentation as may be necessary to establish that the candidate meets the qualifications for eligibility to the Office of President under section 5 of article II of the Constitution."

The "birther" movement, for those who may be reading this blog from Mars, is made up of people who believe that President Obama is not a natural-born citizen of the United States and therefore is ineligible to be President. Although this view has been thoroughly refuted, an astonishing 58 percent of Republicans either believe Obama was born abroad or are not sure about it. H.R. 1503 seems to be a direct outgrowth of the birther movement.

Now, let's start with the obvious: the birther movement is crazy and has a lot of crazy people in it. This can be seen in the now-famous video of a birther at a congressman's town-hall meeting. The Birther Bill almost surely springs from bad motivations and is correctly perceived as a vexatious political ploy.

But having said that, I do try, in this blog, to rise at least somewhat above partisanship and political ploys and to view things from a neutral public policy perspective. Looking at the matter in that way as best I can, I have to say that, if we could just view the Birther Bill in a neutral, detached way, separated from the utterly absurd political movement that has given rise to it (which is admittedly difficult to do), we would see that it is a good idea.

I'm sure some people will recoil in horror, but consider the following propositions:

* The Constitution of the United States should be enforced;

* The Constitution requires the President to be a natural born citizen, to be at least 35 years of age, and to have been a resident of the United States for 14 years;

* There is a strong argument that only Congress, and not the courts, can enforce these presidential eligibility requirements, and that it is Congress's duty to do so at the time it counts the votes of the presidential electors in each presidential election; and

* Congress should have a reliable means of obtaining the information that would allow it to fulfill its duty to enforce the presidential eligibility requirements.

Does anyone disagree?

The Birther Bill, which would apply to presidential elections starting in 2012, seems like a plot to try to embarrass President Obama when he runs for re-election. But imagine that the bill had been proposed 50 years ago, or were proposed 50 years from now, in a context separated from any controversy about any particular candidate. I would find it hard to argue that Congress should not have reliable information that would allow it to fulfill its duty to enforce the Constitution.

It is, of course, unlikely that anyone would try to evade the constitutional presidential eligibility requirements, because it is so likely that such evasion would be exposed. So the requirements of the Birther Bill would protect only against a pretty remote contingency.

But on the other hand, it's not as though the requirements would be very costly or burdensome. President Obama, for example, has already posted a copy of his birth certificate online. The bill only requires "a copy of the candidate's birth certificate" (not the alleged "vault copy" that birthers hysterically insist is being withheld), so all he would need to do would be to file a similar copy with the FEC, together with proof that he's lived in the US for 14 years. (Indeed, if anybody would have had a hard time complying, it would have been John McCain, who would have had to file proof that he was a "natural born citizen" even though he was born in the Panama Canal Zone.)

So even though one might argue that the bill is unnecessary because it protects against something that probably won't happen, the thing would be pretty important if it did happen, and the cost of compliance with the bill's protections would be small.

So if the bill were not the outgrowth of a crazy, political, anti-Obama movement, I would find it hard to oppose. The only thing that makes it a problem is the political context, which is that the bill is an attempt to embarrass President Obama.

But really, I don't see how President Obama would in fact be embarrassed or hindered by the bill's requirements. It wouldn't require him to do anything more than he's done publicly already. If he is re-elected in 2012, I strongly doubt that Congress would find itself unsatisfied with the birth certificate he's already released. And even if I'm somehow wrong about that (let's imagine that the new Congress elected in 2012 is controlled by the most unreasonable, hardest of hardline Republicans), any Congress that was inclined to make trouble over compliance with the Birther Bill could make the same trouble over compliance with the Constitution whether or not the Birther Bill had been passed. So it really wouldn't add anything to whatever potential problem exists.

Part of the purpose of blogging (and of academia) is to challenge conventional wisdom and to look at things in a true and fair light. The birther movement is crazy, and the Birther Bill springs from crazy origins, but that does not by itself prove that the bill is a bad idea. In fact, the bill would promote reliable enforcement of the Constitution of the United States.

1 comment:

smrstrauss said...

I agree with you. No problem in general.

But there would have to be specific provisions to deal with people who cannot prove their citizenship.

For example hundreds of thousands of birth certificates were lost in the Katrina floods in New Orleans and other communities on the Gulf coast. And others were lost in earlier floods and fires.

Then there are foundlings. There are still a few of them. We can presume that they were born in the USA, but there is always a chance that they weren't. So the eligibility law should write in that a kid found in the USA is presumed to have been born in the USA, absent evidence to the contrary.

The, I understand there are problems with as many as a million adoptees who cannot see their real birth certificates, which are sealed. Something would have to be done about that.

Otherwise, no problem so long as the bill sticks with only proving the nationality of the president. There are birthers who want to prove the nationality of the presidents' parents. Fortunately, this bill does not require that.