Bridgegate: Chris Christie’s Big Government Problem

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

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.