06 May 2015

Is Bipartisan Governing More Corrupt?

People say they want more bipartisanship. In poll after poll after poll, they decry the polarized atmosphere in Washington and say they want their leaders to work together.

To which the people of New York and New Jersey might reply: seriously?

It's indictment-and-arrest season in the tri-state region. Monday morning, New York State Senate Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, and his son Adam were arrested on federal charges of extortion, fraud, and soliciting bribes. It's been just three months since State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, was himself arrested on federal corruption charges. Meanwhile, across the Hudson River in New Jersey, Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni, two former top allies of Governor Chris Christie, pleaded not guilty to nine counts apiece including wire fraud and conspiracy in the George Washington Bridge Scandal. On Friday, David Wildstein, a Christie appointee, pleaded guilty to two conspiracy charges in the same scandal.

What New York and New Jersey share, besides oft-imitated accents and embarrassing reputations for political corruption, is bipartisan governance. It wasn't that long ago—before the bridge scandal, credit downgrades, and collapse of Atlantic City—that Christie seemed like a model of a Republican who could work with Democrats and achieve his priorities. Christie forged an alliance with Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross and his protege Steve Sweeney, the Democratic president of the State Senate. Christie even managed to gain many Democratic endorsements in his 2013 run for reelection. In fact, prosecutors say it was his aides' overzealous attempt to squeeze an endorsement from the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee that led to the bridge closure that now threatens to undo his career.

Something similar was going on in Albany. Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, became extremely close with Silver and Skelos, even though Skelos was a Republican. In his January State of the State address—the day before Silver's arrest, it turned out—he described his relationship with the two as "the three amigos." The alliance drove some other New York Democrats nuts. Even though Cuomo had delivered two major progressive priorities in passing gun control and legalizing gay marriage, he governed far too close to the center for liberals' taste on economic issues. But that allowed Cuomo to run the state government smoothly and implement his agenda.

In both cases, government functioned thanks to the lubrication of lucre, which allowed coalitions to grow across the aisle. There's been no clear evidence of illegality outside of the bridge scandal, but reporters including Alec MacGillis have shown how Christie doled out favors to his and Norcross's factions while bullying opponents into support or at least silence. In Cuomo's case, he launched a highly trumpeted ethics inquiry, the Moreland Commission, after a series of embarrassing arrests of lawmakers, but then muzzled and eventually shut it down—when, it seems, it annoyed too many members of both parties. Unfortunately for them, and for Cuomo, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara decided to pick up where the commission left off and ended up with charges against the two leaders.
This is not surprising.  If there is a lesson to be learned from machine politics in the 19th century, it is that when there is personal profit in doing the business of governing, that business gets done..

Of course, this only works for moderate levels of corruption.

Above that, you have Nigeria, where the level of corruption is so high that there are resources left to actually provide services..

This is not an endorsement of corruption.  Neither am I am suggesting that excessive bipartisanship, particularly when the bipartisanship supports moneyed interests, causes corruption.

I am suggesting that it is an indicator of corruption.  I am suggesting correlation, not causation.

I would also suggest that the desire for a new era of bipartisanship is firmly in the, "Be careful what you wish for, you might get it," category.


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