American Competency Testing

[ Posted Tuesday, May 2nd, 2023 – 16:23 UTC ]

It is a rare day when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nikki Haley agree on anything, but both of them are now on the same page on one particular subject -- that Senator Dianne Feinstein needs to resign her Senate seat if she can no longer do the required duties. I share this view, personally, and my opinion is perhaps more relevant than either of theirs, since I am an actual constituent of Feinstein's. California deserves to have two senators that are able to show up and cast votes and represent the most-populous state in the United States Senate. Feinstein hasn't been able to make it to Washington since February, and every week that goes by is another week of delay for many of President Biden's judicial nominees. If Feinstein weren't a crucial vote on the committee responsible for vetting such nominees, perhaps I wouldn't feel as strongly about it, but she is -- and the Republicans have blocked Chuck Schumer from replacing her on that committee. Feinstein has already announced she will not be running for re-election next year, so asking her to step down now isn't as contentious (or as insulting) as it might seem.

But there was one bit of snark from Haley, in her call for Feinstein to resign. This is what passes for subtlety in the Republican Party these days, because it is a barb that has more meaning for Haley's presidential aspirations than just commenting on one senator. Haley wrote: "At 89 years old, [Senator Dianne Feinstein] is a prime example of why we need mental competency tests for politicians." She had previously called for all politicians over the age of 75 to face "mandatory competency testing" before being allowed to run for office. But Feinstein wasn't her real target when she first floated this idea. Haley is directly challenging not just President Joe Biden (who is 80), but also her own party's frontrunner, Donald Trump (who is 76). Haley herself is well below her proposed limit of 75 years old, it almost goes without mentioning.

It's certainly an interesting idea -- requiring some sort of minimum qualification to run for federal office. But what sort of "competency testing" would suffice? A test for mental acuity? Or a simple test to check for dementia and/or other mental decline (such as the "person, woman, man, camera, TV" one Trump loves to brag about as if it were an actual I.Q. test)?

I would take Haley's idea further, and also take it off in a slightly different direction. Why should we allow people younger than 75 to run for office without checking them for some basic competency as well? Let's get rid of the ageist limit set by Haley and make all politicians have to pass a mandatory test. And rather than just trying to measure simple mental acuity, let's instead test them on the knowledge that really should be the bare minimum to serve in any position in the United States government.

Luckily, such a test already exists. It is a test of civics and history and geography that all applicants must pass before they are allowed to become U.S. citizens. From a list of 100 questions, an interviewer chooses a number of questions at random and poses them to the applicant. If you get enough of them right, you are allowed to become an American citizen. If you get too many of them wrong, you are not. In other words, it is a very big deal in the whole process of becoming naturalized.

My wife had to take this test when she became a citizen (my wife was born and raised in the Republic of Ireland). I -- like most native-born American citizens -- didn't even know this test existed before we went through the process. And when we got the questions to study, I was surprised that some of them were rather tough. To put this another way, I'm not sure how many native-born citizens could even pass this test. Of course, we don't have to -- just being born on American soil gets us in. But it certainly seems like a perfect test for aspiring politicians to take, no matter what their age.

I went online to find the current questions, and pulled a list of them out just to show what I mean. I kept wondering, while reading through the 100 possible questions (only a small fraction of which actually get asked to prospective citizens, at random), how many of them Donald Trump would get right. Even after being president himself, Trump often shows a shocking lack of understanding of how the American government is set up and how it all works.

There are all kinds of questions on the test. Some are personal -- such as who your own senator or representative or governor currently are. A lot are things schoolchildren learn but many adults have forgotten. Some questions have simple and precise answers, such as: "How many amendments does the Constitution have?" [The answer is 27, in case you're scratching your head trying to remember.] But then others are more vague and nebulous, such as naming one problem that led to the Civil War. The answer could be a lot of things for that one, but the easy choice is "slavery."

In any case, since Nikki Haley brought the subject up again, and since there's not a whole lot more to say about Dianne Feinstein that I haven't already said, I thought today would be a good day to test my readers' knowledge of United States civics, history, geography, and general knowledge. All of these were taken verbatim from the official list of 100 questions, which you can refer to for any of the answers (if you are unsure of them yourself). I have included the numbers from the original list below, so you can find the answers quickly.

This is the type of test I would like to see aspiring politicians -- of any age -- have to ace. In fact, I would make such tests public. State elections boards should videotape candidates taking them and then publicly post them, to see where they stumble (or even if they score a passing grade). If you are applying for a job in the United States government, you should have to show a basic competency about what that government is, as well as the history of how we got here.

So, just taken at random, here is just a sampling of the 100 questions on the citizenship test. Good luck!

  • [Question 2.] What does the Constitution do?
  • [9.] What are two rights in the Declaration of Independence?
  • [12.] What is the "rule of law"?
  • [14.] What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?
  • [41.] Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the federal government. What is one power of the federal government?
  • [48.] There are four amendments to the Constitution about who can vote. Describe one of them.
  • [49.] What is one responsibility that is only for United States citizens?
  • [50.] Name one right only for United States citizens.
  • [55.] What are two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy?
  • [61.] Why did the [American] colonists fight the British?
  • [62.] Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?
  • [64.] There were 13 original states. Name three.
  • [66,] When was the Constitution written?
  • [67.] The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers.
  • [77.] What did Susan B. Anthony do?
  • [79.] Who was President during World War I?
  • [85.] What did Martin Luther King Jr. do?
  • [87.] Name one American Indian tribe in the United States.
  • [88.] Name one of the two longest rivers in the United States.
  • [91.] Name one U.S. territory.
  • [96.] Why does the flag have 13 stripes?

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


15 Comments on “American Competency Testing”

  1. [1] 
    andygaus wrote:

    You didn't include the answers, but I think I could have become a citizen, even if I hadn't gotten myself born in Indianapolis.I think I could also pass the cognitive competency test, since I can say, "Person, woman, man, camera, TV."More seriously, I'm sure Biden would pass the citizenship test, and I'm not sure Trump would, but that would not be enough to allay concerns that both candidates are too old and showing some signs of declining sharpness. Feinstein would probably also pass the test, but that doesn't mean her mental acuity at this point is sufficient for her to continue in office.Frankly, though I hate to say it, I think Nikki Haley is right. Even though I'm 76 myself, I think 75 is a reasonable age to start asking questions, and so does my hippopotamus.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    That's just ageism, no matter how you slice it, andygaus.

  3. [3] 
    andygaus wrote:

    No, ageism is not where you ask the question, it's where you presume to know the answer without asking or testing. Statistics show that most people drive a car pretty well up to about age 75. After that, some people drive as well as ever and others start to deteriorate. Testing older drivers is not an unreasonable thing to do. Denying them licenses because they're too old would be ageism. Many people show signs of mental decline after 85. Others are as sharp as ever. Asking whether a president might be in the first group or the second group is only prudent.

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    No, you are just showing classic signs of ageism. No one is under the spotlight more than the president of the United States.

    If you can't tell without asking if he is competent or not, then the problem lies with YOU and your ageism.

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Let's stop talking about how old anyone is and start discussing what really matters.

  6. [6] 
    andygaus wrote:

    Is it ageism to say that Dianne Feinstein's mental faculties are severely diminished, and in a way that doesn't usually happen to people in their sixties?

  7. [7] 
    andygaus wrote:

    I didn't say that Biden was incompetent. In fact, he's done a good job.

  8. [8] 
    andygaus wrote:

    I said the question is a fair one to ask. You put answers in my mouth.

  9. [9] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I think there is definitely something wrong with DiFi's mental competency because, given all of the pertinent circumstances, she should have resigned by now.

  10. [10] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    She certainly isn't doing her legacy any favours.

  11. [11] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    I'd pass. Question 2 is pretty open ended though, the constitution does quite a few things.

  12. [12] 
    Mezzomamma wrote:

    Wouldn't it be a good idea for a debate or town hall moderator to start the event by putting say 3 questions picked at random from the list to each candidate or office holder?

  13. [13] 
    Mezzomamma wrote:

    Regarding Feinstein, I've just heard the Democratic committee co-chair Sheldon Whitehouse say that even if she were to resign from the committee or from the senate, Republicans could and would still block any proposed replacement, leaving the same situation. So the problem is still the Republicans more than Feinstein. (Even though I think she should have stepped down rather than stand the last time.)

  14. [14] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Not a lot of easy questions in there, and I consider myself well informed. Yes, us native-born Muricans don’t have to know this stuff but Mezzomomma’s idea [12] is excellent! Good column, Chris.

  15. [15] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    which ones do you find difficult? i've always had more trouble with the kind of question that has many possible right answers, especially when some right answers are considered more right than others.

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