Sunday, February 27, 2011

Is the US Citizenship Test Pukka? And if so, how is our journalism?

During my citizenship test in January, both my interviewer and I got one of the seven questions I was asked wrong - the difference was, I still think the answer I gave was technically 'right.'

It certainly threw into my head the notion that those quizzing me about the fundamentals of American government weren't necessarily all that informed about it themselves - and I wasn't exactly shy communicating that perception!

Which is perhaps why Sarah Marie Anderson - secretary of the El Paso County Republican Party and one of the most brilliant women I know - was inspired to ask me my opinion on a recent article in Slate - "The Problem With Question 36: Why are so many of the answers on the U.S. citizenship test wrong?"

In the article, Candandian-turned-American Dafna Linzer recounts her experiences during her citizenship exam; and questions the veracity of the answers potential Americans are expected to give:
"Citizenship all came down to a test. I passed - you could, too, if you don't mind providing answers that you know are wrong."
All very well - until you started peering into the pedantic nature of her argument.

The first 'incorrect' answer she cited was Question 36 - Name Two Members of the President's Cabinet. According to the answer book all potential citizens receive, one of the many correct answers you could give was: The Vice President.

Dafna argues:
The vice president is a cabinet-level officer but he's not a Cabinet member. Cabinet members are unelected heads of executive departments, such as the Defense Department, or the State Department. The official naturalization test booklet even hints as much: "The president may appoint other government officials to the cabinet but no elected official may serve on the cabinet while in office." Note to Homeland Security: The vice president is elected.
Is one of the accepted answers to Question 36 wrong?

Not at all. For a start, Dafna's pedantic rule about 'no elected official' being able to serve on the cabinet shows a startling ignorance of fundamental constitutional law. The Vice President is elected to the Executive Branch of government - only elected members of the Legislative Branch are ineligible to take a cabinet post.

Secondly, while there are specific posts that make up 'The President's Cabinet', the role of a cabinet officer is not confined to just those jobs.

There are far more 'cabinet-level' members of the government than just the Vice President - and all of them are considered 'the Cabinet.' Ultimately, there are no explicit definition for the term 'Cabinet' in either the United States Code or the Code of Federal Regulations, which means what defines 'the Cabinet' is at the discretion of the sitting president; and for centuries, the defined scope of his cabinet has always included the Vice President.

Dafna's lack of comprehension of American government just gets worse from there. She then complained:
My immigration lawyer accompanied me to my interview. In the security line, I told her I was bothered by Question 16: Who makes the federal laws? Each of the three possible answers, it seemed, was incomplete. The official answers were: "Congress"; "Senate and House (of representatives)"; "(U.S. or national) legislature." Where, I wondered, was the president, whose signature is what makes a bill into a law?
For all of poor Dafna's diligent study, she seemed to have missed the first page of the naturalization booklet, which clearly defines the three branches of American government - Judiciary, Legislature and Executive.

The President is a member of the Executive Branch of government. The Legislature is the body that makes laws. They're two separate entities; and while the president has the authority to veto laws, he can't submit bills, directly add amendments or do anything to 'make' laws other than direct policy.

By the time I'd finished reading the article, I'd gone from cynically complaining about the US Naturalization questions to actively defending them.

I'll admit, there is some wiggle room in the scope of 'acceptable' answers you can give - but criticism on Dafna's scale is just poor journalism. Her article demonstrates how minute her understanding of American government is; and the fact that Slate was willing to publish it demonstrates a similar shortcoming on their part, too.

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