Of the scandal threatening New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the aspect that struck me most forcibly had nothing to do with the governor’s prospects in 2016. I suppose I reacted as a foreigner and a former civil servant: Putting aside the details of who knew what and when, how could an instruction to create a four-day traffic jam for no reason but partisan spite ever come to be issued, let alone carried out? That it was tells you something about politics and public administration in the U.S.
Investigations are under way, and Christie has denied knowing anything about what happened. He’s an impressive politician, and heaven knows the Republican Party could use an injection of the common sense moderation and pragmatism he’s stood for, so I’d like to believe him. But if he was in any way involved in deciding it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” and his denials turn out to be brazen lies, then that will probably be that. Let’s hope so anyway.
It’s a truism of U.S. politics that the coverup is more dangerous than the crime -- but this would be a case where both were equally outrageous. Admittedly, closing traffic lanes to punish a dissenting mayor with thousands of ordinary residents as collateral damage has a comical aspect. It’s an unbelievably childish act -- so stupid, it’s laughable. Yet it also expresses the deepest contempt for the people whose interests officials are supposed to serve. The very pointlessness of the action makes it a perfect expression of small-minded malice.
Christie shouldn’t be entirely excused, either, if it turns out he didn’t know or if evidence to the contrary doesn’t turn up. He knew who he was appointing or allowing to be appointed -- and they presumably thought they knew how to please the governor. His taste in subordinates raises questions about his fitness to lead. And his contrition of recent days also leaves a lot to be desired. “Mistakes were clearly made,” he says. Mistakes? At least the former prosecutor didn’t call the lane closures inappropriate.
As a refugee from the U.K. civil service, I’m impressed most of all by the organizational aspects of the scandal.
David Wildstein was the official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who responded “Got it” to the request for “traffic problems” and has since resigned. He was the director of interstate capital projects, appointed to that post in 2010 by a more senior Christie appointee. Back in 2012, the Record newspaper of northern New Jersey, whose reporting helped to break the bridge story, described him as “an experienced political strategist” who had been an “ambitious and brash young local politician” -- a man, according to longtime Port Authority employees, “intent on carrying out a political agenda rather than one built on reform or improving the region’s transportation system.”
The employees told the Record that “the appointment of Wildstein and dozens of others recommended by the governor -- for jobs ranging from toll collector to deputy executive director -- are evidence that political loyalty trumps merit.”
If true, that would seem to be a problem.
Perhaps New Jersey is an outlier when it comes to preferring political connections to professional credentials in public appointments, but the state surely isn’t unique in believing that public administration is mostly politics by other means. The federal government is also staffed on that basis -- and not, by the way, because the Constitution requires it. Depending how you count them, the executive branch now has between 3,000 and 4,000 political appointees. That’s between six and eight times as many as in the 1960s, and many times more than the system can plausibly need.
A lot of political appointees, at whatever level of government, are doubtless well qualified for the management positions they’ve been given. A lot doubtless aren’t. The idea that political patronage should penetrate so deeply into the bureaucracy fits the distinctively American idea that political engagement -- not just civic engagement -- is an obligation of citizenship. In New Jersey you see where the idea can lead.
This subject is surprisingly little discussed. When it comes up at the federal level, it’s usually in the context of vacant positions and the difficulty of getting nominees confirmed. That’s a problem in its own right, to be sure, but the fitness of political appointees to do their jobs is important, too. One rare and persuasive paper decried the rise of “amateur government” and called for political appointments to be cut severely. Nobody seemed to pay much attention.
Perhaps that’s right: Other models may have even bigger drawbacks. In the British system, ministers (all with seats in Parliament) head government departments and bring political advisers with them into government, but the civil service is staffed with career professionals from top to bottom. This largely unaccountable bureaucracy is a powerful institution in its own right, and can stifle or subvert a weak minister -- the scenario that’s lampooned in “Yes, Minister.” On the other hand, there’s a strong ethos of public service, partisan loyalties are frowned upon, and you advance by being good at your job.
Maybe there’s a happy medium between dozens of political appointees and thousands. Just as you can have too much law (another American trait), you can have too much politics. When a time-served political operator with scores to settle finds himself helping to manage one of the country’s most important infrastructure systems, you’ve got too much politics.
(Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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