A Model Governor and Some Pointers on Government Structure

Among New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s accomplishments has been knocking President Obama from the cover of National Review magazine after a summer-long run. As the related article shows, however, Christie’s more significant accomplishment has been successfully plucking at strings that many of us have spotted before:

… it was true so far as it went. [Democrat Senate President Stephen] Sweeney had shown leadership on pensions, working with the governor to assure broad Democratic support for reform. This struck some in the state’s labor movement as a special kind of betrayal, since Sweeney was himself head of an ironworkers’ union. But it made sense. Private-sector unions like Sweeney’s depended on economic activity for work, and his members were suffering mightily through the recession, even as public-sector labor was shielded from the worst of it.
Thus did Christie split the Democrats in the state legislature from their traditional labor base, exploiting fissures both between public- and private-sector unions and between the teachers’ unions and the taxpaying public. Having taken their best shot at Chris Christie, the opposition now found themselves chastened, confused, and cannibalized.

When problems become as deep as those facing states like New Jersey and Rhode Island, it becomes more difficult for Democrats to cobble an alliance of constituencies that are insulated from the damage of their policies. (Which is not to say that enough people can’t be hoodwinked into erroneous support.) What’s fascinating, though, is the evident importance of the basic, boring structure of the government:

Nor could the Democrats, having lost the public-opinion battle, count on stopping Christie’s budget in the house: New Jersey’s constitution gives an oppositional majority little in the way of procedural tools to block a determined governor’s path. As the only at-large elected official in the state, the governor not only commands the bully pulpit but appoints all the key executives — from attorney general to education commissioner — who might stand in his way. Moreover, his line-item budget veto is both powerful and precise, giving him the ability to strike whole clauses or decrease individual appropriations to the cent. The only thing the governor can’t do is raise spending.

In Rhode Island, it would be more appropriate to call the governor the opposition, and it is he (or she) with “little in the way of procedural tools” to block a strong majority in the General Assembly. I typically favor the legislature in the structure of a divided government, but our state proves decisively that many of the reasons that I do so are able to be subverted. Gerrymandering, for one thing, protects incumbents and facilitates the development of reliable voting blocs for politicians. I’d also note that New Jersey’s legislators are paid sufficiently well that somebody who is neither independently wealthy nor liable to see office as a profitable aspect of his or her private occupation could justify a run for public office.
As for the governor’s office, I’m not so sure that I’d want fewer of his lower executives to be elected, butthe line-item budget veto would be a worthy change to local law.

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