Some Rules Are Meant to Be Changed
November 15, 2017 | Every year, thousands of young Americans apply for the U.S. Department of State’s seasonal internship program, an unpaid opportunity that allows university students to contribute to U.S. foreign policy objectives. Unfortunately, being selected for the prestigious internship is only half the battle. Chosen candidates must undergo a rigorous federal background check to gain the security clearance necessary to handle classified information. Not all candidates receive clearance, however, often due to dubious connections to foreign countries and nationals. These are high standards for such young individuals, many of whom are too young to legally drink alcohol. It is remarkable, then, that the same standards that prevent nineteen- and twenty-year-olds from serving the United States as unpaid interns are not also applied to the most influential elected offices in the world: the presidency and Congress.
The current restrictions on who can become president are limited. An aspirant must be 35 years of age, a natural born citizen, and must have resided in the U.S. for at least 14 years. The only restrictions beyond this apply to the tiny percentage of the U.S. population that has already served as president. The requirements for the Senate do not differ greatly, and for the House of Representatives, the lower age limit is 25 years old. In an era where national security is being challenged in conventional and unconventional methods alike, it is necessary to consider exactly who qualifies to be federally elected. Given the risks of the twenty-first century, federal candidates must be held to the same standards as others wishing to serve the U.S. in a federal capacity. It is laughable that we hold those in significantly less influential positions—interns, for example—at much higher standards.
Regardless of the outcome of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of President Donald Trump’s campaign, the shortcomings of the restrictions on who can be federally elected have become embarrassingly clear in past days and months. The allegiances of a presidential administration have never been so questioned. Unfortunately for the American people, this matter is also being heavily politicized. It is not in the Republican Party’s interest to look deeply into the matter, and the Democratic Party risks a new era of McCarthyism that may end just as infamously. This quagmire could have easily been avoided if, during the campaign, major candidates were investigated and either cleared or disqualified along the same guidelines as other federal employees who handle classified information.
We are now seeing that our president agrees with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statements on the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 presidential elections. This flies in the face of the well-backed conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community—a community that almost exclusively answers to the president and Congress—that the Russian government intentionally and maliciously interfered in these elections. Even if no collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign occurred, massive vulnerabilities in our electoral practices, media, and ideological tendencies were revealed. The security restrictions on who can be federally elected were just one of them, but an important fix all the same.
This fix may not be easy or brief; it would involve a change to the U.S. Constitution, a task even more daunting than it sounds. While discussions of constitutional reform have been floated in recent years, serious discussion has never taken place. This is likely because policymakers know how difficult it would be to pass a new amendment in such a politically divided environment. Additionally, some individual lawmakers may be concerned about the impact such changes would have on themselves. Beyond the Constitution, security restrictions on federally elected officials would also require policy changes in lesser aspects of U.S. law and electoral practices. Given the importance that national security played both during and after the election, however, the two major parties should see the merit in such a change moving forward and should work together to convince the American people that constitutional and other changes are necessary. This can play to both parties’ narratives in that Republicans typically favor national security, and Democrats are now suspicious of foreign interference in the U.S.
Looking beyond this particular weakness in U.S. policy, the Russian government’s aims in last year’s elections should serve as a warning to both policymakers and private citizens. While 2016 may have been a unique year for foreign actors to influence U.S. politics, absent major shifts in relevant policy, we could be prone to the exact same kind of interference. Given the United States’ history of interfering in other states’ domestic affairs and especially their elections, we can claim neither surprise that this is happening, nor innocence in this practice. The Russian government has simply demonstrated what is possible with our own country, something we have been relatively immune to in the past; other governments hostile to the United States are surely taking note.
Sophia Freuden is a former intern at the U.S. Department of State and a recently returned participant of the Fulbright Program in Russia.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily represent the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.
Photo by Lawrence Jackson (whitehouse.gov) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons