Institutions Matter

Reihan Salam lauds the tactical approach of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie:

That is, Christie’s position can be both uncompromising and bipartisan. Consider the campaign by Democratic mayors in New Jersey cities and towns on behalf of Christie’s “toolkit” for local governments. On Monday, The Jersey Journal offered the following report:

Today, Senator Brian P. Stack urged statewide support of Gov. Christie’s “toolkit.”

Christie has recommended reform in the areas of civil service, collective bargaining, employee pensions and benefits, red tape and unfunded mandates, election reform and shared services.

Sen. Stack said, “I urge both my colleagues in the Legislature as well as fellow mayors to show their support for the Governor’s toolkit, which is designed to allow New Jersey’s municipalities to operate with better fiscal efficiency.”

Gov. Christie has certainly been sharply critical of some constituencies, but he’s made an effort to build alliance with Democratic officials and with members of private sector unions who are concerned about the sustainability of demands being made by public sector unions.

Where some see tactical innovation here, I see institutional innovation. If you pay attention to what Senator Stack is saying here, you’ll note that he’s a State Senator and a mayor. Qua State Senator he’s a Democrat and probably much more sympathetic than Christie to the demands of public employees. But qua mayor he needs to make his budget add up, and thus is more sympathetic than the average Democrat to the idea of a “toolkit” that helps expand mayors’ budgetary options.

Imagine how different United States Senate debates over federal fiscal aid to state and local government would look if several Republican Senators were also state governors. Instead of Governor Christie turning down federal funding for a commuter rail tunnel because he was worried about potential overruns’ impact on the state budget, Senator/Governor Christie might have struck a deal for the feds to finance the project more generously. And of course there’s no filibustering in the New Jersey State Senate. State government is also just different from federal government. Every Democratic governor who’s presided over a recession ever has ended up cutting state spending, whereas every Republican President since Herbert Hoover has ended up increasing federal spending.

The point is simply that institutions matter. A lot. Always. Politicians matter too, but human beings are prone to be too interested in the personalities that inhabit structures of power and insufficiently attentive to the nature of the structures themselves.