Bruce Fein’s Anti-Dynasty Amendment

Grover Norquist writes in the Financial Times about a Constitutional Amendment being proposed by Bruce Fein that would prevent the family member of a federal office holder from succeeding them in office:

The US was founded as a constitutional republic. There were to be no kings, dukes or other rapscallions in the New Jerusalem.

Thomas Paine spoke for all of us in Common Sense, saying there was no role for hereditary monarchy in the new world: “For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and though himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them.”

America’s national constitution, written by representatives of 13 jealous states, even gives the federal government the task of guaranteeing a “republican form of government” in the states and adds: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.” The queen of Hawaii had to go.

It could not be much clearer. No aristocracy. No king. No inherited titles.

And, yes, as Norquist notes, recent American history is replete with examples of family members following each other in office. Most commonly, this has happened when a prominent Congressman or Senator has died and his spouse is appointed to complete his term; the most prominent example of this was when Hubert Humphrey’s wife, Muriel, was appointed to finish out his term in the Senate back in the 1970s. Later, Mary Bono succeeded Sonny Bono as a California Congressman. And, of course, from 1988 until now, we’ve seen the White House held by two families with the prospect of that continuing until at least 2013.

Fein’s proposed Amendment reads as follows:

Section 1. No spouse, sibling or child of an elected or appointed federal, state or local official outside the civil service may immediately succeed that official in the same elected or appointed office.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation, including exempting certain elected or appointed offices from its general proscription and defining the term “immediately succeed” to prevent circumventions.

Fein’s Amendment is clearly motivated by the fact that, with Hillary Clinton looking like the certain Democratic nominee and the frontrunner in the 2008 General Election, America is faced with the prospect of enduring a 30 year period when the same two families (father and son, husband and wife) occupy the White House.

While I’ve noted myself that this is something to be concerned about, it’s also an historical anomaly. Prior to the 2000 Election, the last time that a son followed his father into the White House was when John Quincy Adams was elected in 1824.

Other than that, the only other examples of family members following each other into the White House are when Benjamin Harrison became President in 1888, nearly fifty years after his grandfather’s brief time in office, and when Franklin Roosevelt was elected to the office thirty years after his distant cousin Theodore.

In other words, the dynastic succession that Fein seems to fear, while understandable, is something that has almost never happened in American history (the closest example I could find is a certain Senate seat in Massachusetts which, except for a brief two year period that ended in 1962, has been occupied by a Kennedy every year since 1952).

Moreover, as Mark at Publius Endures notes, the Amendment he proposes would not have prevented George W. Bush’s election in 2000, and would have no impact on Hillary Clinton’s run in 2008. The only way that could happen would be to write the amendment in such a way that it would provide that a family member could never hold an office once occupied by a former family member; and it’s doubtful that a restriction that broad would ever make it through the amendment process.

Finally, as with much about American politics, the tendencies that concern Fein and Norquist will prove to be largely self-correcting. George W. Bush followed his father into the White House, but, thanks largely to the second Bush Administration’s less than stellar performance, it’s unlikely we’ll see another Bush in the White House anytime soon — a fact that Jeb Bush recognized a few years ago when he announced that he would not be running for President in 2008. And even Hillary Clinton’s ascendancy is not guaranteed; her negatives remain higher than any other candidate’s, and her election is by no means assured.

By and large, Fein’s Amendment seems to be a solution in search of a problem and, like many other proposed Constitutional Amendments, it doesn’t need to be passed.