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How to fix America's broken democracy? Term limits would be a start.

Mac DefordGlobalPost.com
Term limits: Why not limit senators to a single, 10-year term? Presidents to one six-year term? Supreme Court justices to one 15-year term? Everyone would be a lame duck from day one, and everyone could then focus on what's best for the country. Wikimedia Commons photo

OWLS HEAD, Maine — Last week was a bad one for the homeland (that's the politically correct term we've been taught to call our country since Sept. 11). And the worst thing was not the Boston Marathon bombing, tragic as it was. Rather, the most profoundly bad news was the refusal of the US Senate to vote into law changes on background checks for gun-buyers.

We may never know why a popular, apparently well-adjusted 19-year-old immigrant, who had spent all his adolescence and teenage years in the United States, would, suddenly, choose to become a mass murderer. The influence of his alienated brother is obviously key, but there's a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde element in this well-liked athlete that seems incomprehensible.

By contrast, all too comprehensible is the why behind the Senate's cowardice that meant that less than 60 percent of US senators voted for a measure that 90 percent of the country supports. What it tells us is that there's something very wrong with the way our democracy functions — or fails to — these days. The system isn't working.

Start with the Supreme Court, that former bastion of renown. They are the ones, in the Citizens United verdict, who turned corporations into individuals, thus flooding Washington's already corrupt lobbying system with ever more money. What can we say about the distorted political view of American democracy of the five justices that gave us that verdict? That they're small-minded political hacks, in their own way no better than the other political hacks in the nearby Capitol? For starters.

But the bigger question is what should we do about it? There was a time when it was believed that the Supreme Court was above politics, elite Americans who had been chosen by a partisan Democratic or Republican president — how else? — but who in their new role rose above the ideology of the president's party to represent all America.

Not always of course, but more often than not. No longer. And the problem is that this third, now equally politicized, leg of our democracy gets a lifetime appointment, which was not unreasonable in 1789 when life expectancy was about 50 years. An individual justice in today's world could serve for that long. So term limits, say 15 years, for the Supreme Court is the first antidote to what ails us.

Of course, there's always the law of unintended consequences (a relevant aside: wouldn't our Founding Fathers consider the nation's 30,000 gun deaths annually, an offshoot of their Second Amendment, an example of the kind of unintended consequences that they would surely want corrected). An unintended consequence of term limits would be ex-Supreme Court justices out on Washington's streets after 15 or 20 years, selling what's left of their souls to the highest corporate bidder. So make all incoming justices sign some document — that even the Supreme Court couldn't overturn — to keep them from influence-peddling for the rest of their lives.

As for the Senate, in old school civics classes, one was taught that a member of the House of Representatives, as the name implied, represented individual constituents, looking out for their well being and passing legislation that served the interests of the local district.

The Senate, by contrast, had a loftier role, we were told: Their ken extended beyond the well being of their state to include the overall well being of the country. That was then — whenever then was; it sure ain't now. US senators are as parochial as local school district administrators. And, by taking money from the highest bidders, unless they totally screw up (e.g., put their country's interest first), they've got every bit the lifetime sinecure of a Supreme Court justice.

Solution: term limits again. For senators: one 10-year term. After all, if they're lame ducks from the moment they're sworn in, no amount of corporate or PAC money for their nonexistent upcoming election is likely to influence their votes. And they too will have to sign the permanent no-influence peddling agreement, because otherwise they'd be doing deals during their single terms with the pay-off guaranteed down the road.

As for House members, one term as well, of five years. Or, alternatively, we could give them two five-year terms, so long as gerrymandering was made illegal and a bipartisan commission redrew House districts. Of course, these days, looking for bipartisan members to fill such a commission would make Diogenes' search seem simple.

While we're rearranging Washington office-holders' tenure — let's hope it isn't just deck chair repositioning on the Titanic — let's get our president down to one six-year term. No more of those wasted first four years while he relegates the country's interests to his re-election. Instead, lame duck from day one, worrying about what's best for the US and not how to wrap up the Electoral College vote. Which, come to think of it, should also go. Direct presidential voting: isn't that the essence of a democracy? Or are we stuck forever with a system where presidential contenders focus on four or five "key" states and treat the rest of us like non-voting illegal immigrants?

Money is killing our democracy, money and the perpetual campaign to raise money. Single terms for Congress and the president are draconian measures. And I know the rebuttal: if Congress and the White House are single-term inhabitants, then our country will be run by bureaucrats. But what's wrong with that? Call them professionals, not bureaucrats, and you'll be happy they're in charge.

Professionals once ran the State Department. Today, international affairs are controlled out of the White House with presidential appointees in the top foreign policy jobs at the NSC, DOD, and State as well, usually ex-businessmen, successful ones certainly, but who have had little direct experience with the issues they deal with, though a lot with pouring money into politics. So if we end up with decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a successor one looming in Iran, why be surprised.

The country's operating on a framework drawn up in the 18th century; before computers, before cars, before electricity, and before climate change. If we don't change our outdated system, we'll watch from the sidelines as gun deaths continue to rise and the temperature rises even faster.

But before I get too tied up extolling the need for systemic changes to accommodate the world that lies ahead of us, we've still got to deal with our current world. One way is to support Mayor Bloomberg's non-profit organization fighting the NRA. Another is to support those four Republican senators who had the courage to vote, against their own party, for the modest steps towards gun control.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a foreign service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.

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