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Terry Bracy: Fixing an arthritic democracy

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

“I grow old ... I grow old ... I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled,” poet T.S. Eliot wrote in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

American democracy is arthritic and in need of treatment. Consider this: half of the members of the Senate are 65 or older. The average age of the House membership is nearly 60. Should President Biden become incapacitated, the line of succession to the Oval Office after Vice President Kamala Harris is populated by octogenarians. The president, himself, will cross that threshold this November.

Age is not always a measure of capacity, as Biden has so far demonstrated, but those who escape the mental and physical decline of later life are few. Yet our system favors the incumbency of politicians who are as likely as not to exit public life in a casket. The changes we must make will never be allowed by old legislators hanging on for dear life. How do we rejuvenate our system?

Start with term limits. As a typical Washington veteran, I scoffed at the idea that a constantly revolving Congress could acquire the requisite experience to generate good policy. After decades of witnessing the opposite — a feckless Congress run by leaders who never left — I’ve changed my mind. Ten years in the House and two terms in the Senate would do just fine. This approach would refresh our legislatures with new, younger talent and allow Congress to adapt to rapidly changing times.

Term limits for legislators are one essential step, but not nearly enough: America’s Road to Damascus begins across the street at the U.S. Supreme Court. The current court is controlled by right-wing reactionaries who would be more appropriately dressed in Republican red rather than black robes.

In a single term, and with brazen arrogance, they have turned the clock back a half-century on women’s rights, held states’ rights superior to federalism, and banished local regulations on carrying handguns.

Justice Alito gives new meaning to the word condescension, but at least he didn’t lie to get his seat. That was the approach taken by the two at the end of the table, Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh, both of whom testified under oath that Roe v. Wade was settled law, only to coldly abolish it once on the bench.

Perhaps the most damaging decision a Roberts Court has issued was in an earlier case, Citizens United v. FEC., where the chief justice proudly equated money with free speech and wiped out the impact of every single legal restraint on political spending in the United States. That decision effectively turned our political system into a casino where corporations and rich individuals could place unlimited bets on both parties and always win the trifecta. Worse, with the Court allowing anonymous donors to PACs, our voters don’t know whether a candidate’s money is coming from Minneapolis or Moscow!

Once again, I find myself backtracking on a prior belief that the Court was sacrosanct and should be left to do its business. I now favor expanding the number of justices to better reflect the America of this era, one that would restore women’s rights, support a ban on personal ownership of automatic weapons, and allow for regulation of a campaign finance system that has become legal corruption. And I no longer support lifetime appointments for anyone.

If I sound like a grouchy old man, let me give you one more reason for that — ethics. The Supreme Court operates without ethics rules, implying that men and women of such distinction could surely police themselves. Maybe so, but there is plenty of evidence that justices improve their incomes by taking soft side jobs as lecturers at universities, and that many often enjoy elegant junkets at the expense of unnamed benefactors.

The intellectual godfather of this right-wing Court was Justice Antonin Scalia who died at a luxury quail hunting resort as the guest of a still unidentified host. Although known as the junket king, Scalia had plenty of company on the liberal side of the bench.

Meanwhile, the Congressional ethics rules established by prior generations have been watered down to the point that according to a New York Times study, fully 20 percent of the members are buying and selling stocks with the benefit of special information. The buying and selling of stock by members of Congress should be banned.

Each of the reforms I am advocating can be only achieved if one party — in this case the Democrats — can muster control of both houses of Congress with meaningful majorities and elect a president willing to lead. In the long run, it will take the energy and commitment of younger generations to stop merely dwelling and start acting like concerned citizens.

As another poet, W. H. Auden, wrote: “A poem is never completed, only abandoned.” The same may be said of a great democracy: it must be constantly refreshed or risk dying on the vine. The season for change is upon us.

Terry Bracy, a regular Star contributor, has served as a political adviser, campaign manager, congressional aide, sub-Cabinet official, board member and as an adviser to presidents.

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