Thursday, April 22, 2010

Birther Bill Back

The Birther Bill is back. After making no progress at the federal level (H.R. 1503 was referred to a committee more than a year ago and hasn't been heard from since), the Birther Bill concept has devolved to the states. Arizona's House of Representatives just passed a version that would require presidential candidates to file proof of eligibility -- i.e., age, residency, and natural born citizenship -- to get on the ballot in that state.

Some editorialists are quick to dismiss Birther Bills as "fringe lunacy." And yes, in some sense, they are. It is pretty crazy, in the face of all the evidence, to continue to believe that President Obama is ineligible to serve because he is not a natural born citizen. And there is little doubt that the motivation behind the Birther Bills is to embarrass the President and to suggest that he is ineligible (or at least to appease those who adhere to this kooky belief).

But on the other hand, as I've observed before, if we could somehow detach the Birther Bills from the absurd controversy about President Obama particularly, and think of them in the abstract -- imagine, say, that they came up 50 years ago, or 50 years from now -- we would see that they are actually good public policy. The Constitution does require that the President be a natural born citizen at least 35 years of age. The Constitution should be enforced. There is a strong argument that the courts could not enforce the presidential eligibility requirements. Therefore, some other enforcement mechanism is necessary.

The mechanism we have now -- do nothing, and just hope that the requirements are complied with -- actually works pretty well. The tremendous publicity associated with any preisdential campaign tends to ensure that no one would even try to get around these requirements, because they would almost certainly be caught. But while it's not likely that a problem would arise that couldn't be ferreted out by the current system, the problem, if it did arise, would be very significant. So why not take some extra steps to prevent it? Especially when the necessary steps would not be particularly burdensome -- candidates would just have to file proof of eligibility with appropriate state or federal authorities.

So while the current situation is not exactly a crisis calling out for a remedy, it does pose a small risk of a big problem, and requiring presidential candidates to file proof of their eligibility seems like a good way of avoiding problems. (Actually, repealing the eligibility requirements would be even better, but so long as they are in the Constitution they should be enforced.)

Could this be done at the state level? Some people have suggested that states the lack constitutional authority to enforce the presidential eligibility requirements. But the Constitution gives the states great control over selecting their presidential electors -- it just says that each state shall appoint its electors " in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct." States don't even have to hold presidential elections if they don't want to. So I would think they would have great control over the manner of holding the election, if they choose to have one, and it's hard for me to see how a state could be faulted for refusing to put on their election ballots someone who isn't eligible for the office sought.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a post looking at this in an objective light. Seems like a variation of the infinite monkey theorem -- if a bunch of deranged lunatics keep at it long enough they're almost certain to come up with a serviceable idea.

Anonymous said...

It is not fringe kook absurdity to want to see an actual original birth certificate that has signatures of the attending physician and other witnesses to the birth - like mine does. As far as I have seen, the only eye witness account of the President's birth has been his African grandmother who states that she was present at his birth in Kenya.

When only a secondary document is given, issued by a partisan politician of the same party as the person whose natural citizenship is in question, it is reasonable to be curious about its authenticity.

If I want to do anything even semi-official, such as drive a car or get a passport, this is the document that I have to show - not a state issued secondary birth ID card, similar to what the President released - which I also have but is laughed at by government officials.

The President could have settled the matter instantly by releasing his original birth certificate. Why did he not do so?