Opinion: Introducing Gov. Chris Christie, Lame Duck in the Making

Carl Golden | May 16, 2014 | Opinion
The governor has made it easier for GOP lawmakers to break rank, hastening his inevitable loss of authority

Carl Golden
Of the various storylines produced by the Bridgegate scandal, none is more intriguing, perhaps, than assessing the impact of the investigations on Gov. Chris Christie’s second-term effectiveness.

Governors become lame ducks the instant they’re elected. Some are more successful than others at staving off this creeping irrelevancy, but ultimately all come to the realization that their grip on what is arguably the most powerful governor’s office in the country is reaching an end.

At this early stage, it is impossible to determine with any clarity where Christie falls on this spectrum.

What is clear from history, though, is that executive office clout drains away gradually as legislators, for example, are no longer as reluctant as they once were to oppose a popular governor — as Christie undeniably was in his first term.

Bridgegate has grown from a distraction to a political liability for the governor, dragging his job performance and approval ratings down — both in New Jersey and nationally. And as the legislative committee and U. S. Attorney investigations play out, the public and the media will continue to focus on who ordered the closure of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee last September and why.

There is a sense that dealing with the scandal has weakened the governor’s position and, added to his lame duck status, hastening the moment when he becomes a caretaker rather than an activist chief executive.

He has, moreover, continued to hint that seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 is under serious consideration, fueling speculation that he will leave the governor’s office before his term expires, undermining the exercise of his relatively unbridled authority in the interim even further.

The party discipline so evident in Christie’s first term will be increasingly difficult to maintain. Republicans who closed ranks behind him on virtually every issue in the past four years will find it less risky to break with the administration if the issue at hand is politically perilous or impacts adversely his or her district.

The outcome of three immediate issues — the shortfall approaching $1 billion in the current budget that must be bridged before June 30, the proposed fiscal year 2015 budget, and Christie’s conditional veto of the so-called Sandy Bill of Rights legislation — will provide some clues as to the Legislature’s understanding of the governor’s status.

With the state’s fiscal condition — this year and next — resembling one of those multi-vehicle chain reaction pile-ups on a California freeway, the governor and legislative leadership face painful options, involving potentially deep cuts in ongoing programs and the politically volatile issue of reducing, skipping or delaying the state’s payment into the public pension system.

Democrats were infuriated with the administration’s recent admission that the proposed budget contained more than 20 increases in fees or taxes, recommendations kept secret by the state treasurer and the governor.

Christie’s boast that the budget called for no tax increases was deliberately misleading, Democrats said, and the height of hypocrisy given Christie’s relentless assault on Democratic candidate Barbara Buono last year that she had voted more than 100 times to raise fees or taxes.

Sensing an excellent opportunity to turn the tables as a result of the tax and fee increase revelations, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo of Bergen County set unanimous Republican support for them as a precondition for approving the budget, a threat that surely produced some cringing and shudders in the GOP caucus.

Bridging the gap estimated at more than $800 million in the budget will, according to Christie, be accomplished without raising taxes but through spending cuts. All options are open, he said, from state aid reductions to salary reductions to additional revisions in the pension system, and even to borrowing.

Keeping Republican legislators united will be no easy chore, particularly if Christie recommends aid cuts, since they translate for the most part into increases in property taxes or service cutbacks at the local level.

Manipulating pension payments or even cutting salaries may be distasteful, but are a considerably lighter political lift than denying aid to local governments that have already anticipated the funding in their budgets.

Senate President Steve Sweeney has been adamant in his opposition to delaying or reducing payment into the pension system — much less any further concessions in the way of increased employee contributions — but still must come to grips with finding a lot of money in a very short time to avoid the budget tumbling into deficit at the end of next month.

Often an ally of the governor, Sweeney is in the center also of the dispute over the conditional veto of what he was convinced would be his signature accomplishment, one which would be particularly helpful should he run for governor –the Sandy Bill of Rights, a far-reaching effort to simplify and accelerate the process by which victims of Hurricane Sandy could resolve their claims and qualify for financial assistance.

Sweeney toured the state touting his legislation and it was approved without a dissenting vote. Christie, despite conceding on numerous occasions that the aid and recovery process was flawed and failed to work as designed, sent the legislation back with a list of recommended amendments.

Sweeney, who seemed stunned by the governor’s action, ratcheted up his criticism of the administration’s relief efforts and termed the veto the “biggest blunder yet.” He raised the prospect of an override, even though the Democratic majorities fall short of the number necessary to do so and would require Republican support.

Christie has an unbroken streak of sustaining his vetoes and has managed to hold Republicans together even when some were squeamish about the potential political repercussions of supporting him.

Against a background of a unanimous vote for the Sandy relief bill, the governor will need all his powers of persuasion — personal and political — to convince his party to stick by him should an override attempt come to pass.

Christie rode to national prominence on the strength of his performance in responding to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy — and deservedly so. Controversies and recriminations have dogged the relief programs, however, and Christie himself conceded on more than one occasion that mistakes were made.

Democrats, if they choose, can now argue his veto is tantamount to turning his back on the storm victims and denying them the help they were promised and expected.

There are certain to be some Republicans who’ve become restive and who’ve privately expressed doubts over the wisdom of siding with the governor on an issue as emotional as this. All those who voted in favor of the legislation don’t relish the prospect of explaining their change of heart.

In the meantime, the duck waits patiently in the wings, poised to quack loudly at the first sign of Republican defections. Once begun, it’s a quacking that doesn’t cease.