Bridgegate: Chris Christie’s Big Government Problem

For Republicans, government is made to be abused — not used.

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An old joke: Republicans are the people who spend years and years and years telling you how awful government is — then, when elected to office, set about proving it.

I thought about that joke Thursday during Chris Christie’s interminable press conference, as he considered what lessons he might learn from the “Bridgegate” scandal that threatens to derail his governorship and, perhaps, his presidential aspirations.

“I’m out of the traffic study business for certain,” he told reporters.

Cute quote. Bad answer. One that signals Christie — and his fellow Republicans — might be learning the entirely wrong lesson from the affair.

So let’s get this clear: When government power is abused, the correct response is not to stop governing. It’s to stop abusing.


Christie’s answer does reflect a conservative bias: The idea that government, far from serving the people, in reality mostly makes people’s lives harder. So when, say, the staff of a politically vindictive governor decides to the use governor’s powers to punish the mayor of a small town by disrupting traffic … well, at least part of the problem is that those government powers were just sitting around waiting to be abused, right?

Here’s the problem: Building roads, maintaining bridges? That’s about as basic as the work of governance gets. Give that up, outsource it, whatever, and you don’t have the “limited” government conservatives say they want. You just … don’t have government.

And in New Jersey, if you’re avoiding transit questions for whatever reason you’re probably not serving your constituents very well. As The Atlantic Cities pointed out on Thursday, this week’s scandal is actually directly related to Christie’s decision, in 2010, to kill the ARC tunnel connecting New Jersey to Manhattan.

A staggering 400,000 people make the trip from New Jersey to New York each day by car, train, bus, and ferry, the most that commute between any two states. That exhausting journey gets messed up any time a choke point gets blocked (say, by a power problem in the Amtrak tunnel, or, in this case, the closing of several toll lanes in Fort Lee). For the typical Jersey commuter, it’s a rare week that passes without a glitch.

Meanwhile, Christie had taken $4 billion that would have gone to ARC and put it into the state’s transportation trust fund, which had been running on empty. That move was widely read as a tactic to avoid raising the state’s gasoline tax, which is the third-lowest in the nation and hasn’t been raised in more than 20 years.

Three years after Christie killed the ARC tunnel, there’s no serious plan to increase capacity for the state’s beleaguered commuters. New Jersey’s roads and bridges are still in terrible shape.

In other words, a traffic study is exactly what the area needs! Not as a standalone item, but as the beginning of a process to ease the commute between New Jersey and New York — a commute that includes a few Philadelphians, by the way — improving the lives of Christie’s constituents and perhaps even creating new economic opportunities.

Instead, Christie’s staff took the power he had to improve the lives of New Jersey residents and used it to make a few of them suffer. That doesn’t actually say much about the nature of government; it does say a lot about the character of who held the reins of power. If Christie is looking to find redemption for this disaster, he might consider something simple: Use the powers of his government for their intended purpose.

Follow @joelmmathis on Twitter.

  • pete

    Sorry, this is not a conservative thing. This is a human trait. Someone made a stupid choice and yes, once they are outed a creative writer will always come out linking that choice to everything the person has done or said. Attributing it to one side or the other is expected of you, but senseless.

    • Joel Mathis

      I think both Dems and Republicans commit abuses, regardless of ideology, Pete.

      What I’m suggesting is that for Republicans, the problem of government abuse is often to try to govern less—a solution suggested by Christie’s “no more traffic studies” line. But Jersey needs more and better traffic planning! That’s what government does! So rather than learn the “stop governing” lesson, it would be better if Christie and his cohort learned a “stop abusing” lesson instead.

      • DTurner

        Joel, this is more of a Jersey thing. Look at the past few governors, Democrats & Republicans, and you’ll see a pattern of abuse of government powers. The “stop governing” path might actually be a vast improvement for the state, devolving powers away from a heavily corrupt state government; but what works in theory may not work in practice.

        • Joel Mathis

          Interesting: So, how would you build a government in New Jersey that can deliver needed services while being too slim to be worth routinely abusing? Is that even possible? Like I say, roads and bridges are pretty basic stuff, the bread-and-butter of governance: I think even most limited government folks would agree. Am I wrong?

          • DTurner

            That’s a good question. I think it depends on who you ask. Libertarians and their ilk will say that you can privatize roads and bridges, which more moderate Republicans would support for highways and major bridges, but not for local roads.

            For NJ, the state would probably benefit from keeping road construction out of the hands of Trenton, but keeping a smaller state authority in place to provide financing. As for NJT, the system should probably be allowed to operate more like a corporation (allowing the authority to invest in TOD projects near stations with funds generated by the authority, not the tax payer) and should probably be compelled to examine the private operation of rail lines as a way to cut costs and improve service.

  • roxpublius

    i’m sorry… i missed the part where chris christie believed in limited government. sure didn’t look like it when he warned against the “dangerous thought” of libertarianism, or was lobbying for billions in federal money after a storm, or pushes boondoggles for casinos that fail spectactularly.

    the most unfair thing to those who actually believe in limited government is to continually have to defend against the straw man of being lumped in with the likes of christie, bush, mccain, etc. who in no meaningful way actually believe in it.

    • Joel Mathis

      That’s a fair point, roxpublius, although it’s probably also true (in defense of some moderate Republicans) that you can be for “limited” government and maybe not want to limit it as much as libertarians do!

      • DTurner

        Agreed, there’s a spectrum. I believe in more limited government functions, but I don’t necessarily believe in the end of the federal government or the end of government economic development (with some exceptions). Does that mean I am for limited government?

      • roxpublius

        reasonable. but it appears part of your point is to suggest that people who believe in limited government only do so when convenient to them. (if it isn’t your point, it is one raised frequently) the chris christies of the world are then used to illustrate this point, and the concept is then considered discredited.

  • Jane Yavis

    Given Jersey’s reputation maybe BridgeScam is more appropriate. Christie’s entry into abuse of power as Governor amounted to little more than a “Who likes New York and who wants Union Jobs” Vendetta. Aren’t most people complaining about “Big Government” the very beneficiaries of some sort of Government Program? Chris Christie didn’t go to the Port Authority or the Chamber of Commerce to clean up after Sandy.

    You could hold a family reunion at most City,County or State Facilities at lunchtime, Both parties are equally guilty but only one party wants to eliminate every government job but their own.

  • davev

    Great point bringing up the ARC tunnel. The very definition of ironic. To add more context to this story, one must remember that the very respected Ray LaHood (a republican kept on because he was so good) was quite pissed at what happened. Here was the largest planned public works project in the country (USA) and the Gov killed it under the swarmy excuse of New Jersey having to pay too much. Short sighted when you realize in the long term that New Jersey would have benefited too much. Do we really want a short-sighted president?