Chris Christie and the Case Against Term Limits

Social science has proven that Congress is even less popular than Nickelback, so it’s easy to see why term limits for senators and representatives consistently poll well among Americans of all backgrounds and ideological persuasions. Would-be reformers of various stripes have touted term limits as an important good government initiative, and even many who have not championed the cause of formally enshrining them in law have offered up pledges to voluntarily leave office themselves after a fixed number of years.

Notwithstanding the legal setbacks that have been dealt past attempts to enact term limits at the federal level, the idea has always struck me as an overrated and potentially counterproductive “solution” to the problems it purports to solve, like legislative gridlock, political careerism, or corruption. To see why, one need look no further than RM’s very own Garden State, whose chief executive looks to me like a poster boy for the case against term limits.

In 2010, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie unilaterally canceled a joint federal-state public works project known as “Access to the Region’s Core” (ARC) that would have involved construction of the first new rail tunnel under the Hudson River in over 100 years, citing the possibility of unforeseen cost overruns. As Rachel M. Cohen explains in an essay for the Winter 2015 issue of The American Prospect,

Many had expected New Jersey to raise its gas tax to meet its obligations for the ARC tunnel and other transportation investments. But Christie was emphatically opposed… [K]illing the ARC project had an additional advantage besides avoiding a gas tax increase. It also enabled him to redirect more than $3 billion that had already been put aside for the tunnel.

Christie’s Democratic predecessor, Jon Corzine, had set off a political firestorm in 2008 when he tried to pass a plan that would have used dramatic increases in highway tolls over a 12-year period to cut the state’s $32 billion debt in half and pay for transportation improvements. Although the plan was defeated, Corzine did succeed in doubling tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike. While the revenue wasn’t enough to resolve the state’s long-term fiscal problems, it included $1.25 billion earmarked for the future ARC tunnel… Christie took that money as well as $1.8 billion from the Port Authority’s ARC capital fund and used the more than $3 billion in total to pay for road and bridge projects in the state.

The existing Hudson rail tunnels suffered significant damage during Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012. According to Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman, each tunnel will need to be closed for repairs for at least a year sometime within the next two decades. He has stressed that twenty years is an upper bound on the tunnels’ remaining life, and that they might need to be shuttered in as little as seven.

The closure of even one of the tunnels would be devastating, with New Jersey Transit estimating that the number of commuter trains able to traverse the Hudson every hour would be cut by up to 75%. The result would be utter chaos. Now-unthinkable measures like banning automobiles from using the Lincoln Tunnel would have to be implemented to deal with the loss of capacity. Put simply, the probability that New York and New Jersey could suffer Transitpocalypse within the next ten years is meaningfully greater than zero.

Chris Christie is constitutionally limited to two consecutive terms as governor and will leave office in January 2018. But if he were able to run for and win a third term, he could conceivably serve until 2022. Boardman’s statement was issued last year. Assuming, arguendo, that his most pessimistic prediction were to be the correct one, then the tunnels could be wheeled into surgery as early as 2021 – during the second half of a hypothetical third Christie term.

Of course, Hurricane Sandy had not yet taken place when Christie pulled the plug on ARC, and an accurate assessment of how much damage it had inflicted was not available until some time afterward. But a third-term-eligible Christie might have been galvanized by Boardman’s prognosis to prioritize the development of a funding mechanism for an alternative project like Amtrak’s Gateway proposal that would increase trans-Hudson capacity, knowing that the worst could very well happen on his watch. As it is, Christie was probably correct to gamble that the tunnels will manage to avoid flatlining for the remainder of his time in office.

This is one reason why I see him as an ideal poster boy for the case against term limits: Christie’s decision to raid the funds that had been appropriated for ARC in order to forestall a gas tax increase and have the state still be able to pay for an urgently-needed renovation of the Pulaski Skyway bridge between Newark and Jersey City is emblematic of an important way in which term limits affect political incentives. By guaranteeing that a politician who inaugurates an ultra-long-term public works project will no longer be in office when his constituents begin to reap its benefits, these limits nudge elected officials in the direction of advancing initiatives with more immediate payoffs or those whose costs can be postponed indefinitely.

As Benjamin Kabak of the transit blog Second Avenue Sagas put it in a post on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal for a new subway line down Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, “[o]ne of the reasons why politicians are so hesitant to embrace these ambitious plans concerns timing. If it’s going to take a decade or more from start to finish, those who appear at the ribbon cutting won’t be those who did the heavy lifting and secured the dollars.”

And if you know that you won’t be around for the ribbon cutting, it might start to seem like a better use of your time to focus on something else – like how to position yourself for your next job. Even politicians find unemployment stressful, so it’s only rational than term-limited officials would take steps to plan for the future when they know they’ll be sent home after four or eight years.

Which brings us to the second way in which Christie illustrates the unintended consequences of term limits: knowing that he will not have to face the voters again in his own state, he has devoted more and more energy to burnishing his national image in advance of a run for the White House. In his role as chairman of the Republican Governors’ Association for 2014, Christie frequently traveled out-of-state – and sometimes out-of-country – to campaign for GOP candidates and to promote key planks in the party’s platform. According to NJ.com, the peripatetic governor spent all or part of 137 days last year outside of the state.

The voting public seems to be growing irritated with these absences: a Monmouth University poll released in February found that about two-thirds of voters in the Garden State believed that a trip Christie took to the United Kingdom that was advertised as a “trade mission” was “mainly designed to boost his presidential prospects” (17 percent believed that the primary intent was in fact to strengthen economic ties). Of course, it’s not necessarily the case that someone who believes Christie’s globetrotting is designed to lay the groundwork for a presidential campaign is unhappy about that fact, but the same poll also found that a nearly identical percentage of voters “say he is more concerned about his own political future than he is about the state,” which suggests that his motives are viewed with a certain amount of cynicism.

In their 2012 book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein express skepticism about the transformative potential of term limits for precisely this reason. They cite other scholars who argue that, in the twenty-one states that instituted term limits for state representatives between 1990 and 2000,

[i]f anything, the limits amplified the corrosive effects of ambition on the legislators, who focused from day one on how best to use their limited time as a springboard to their next post. That produced incentives to go for a big, short-term splash and leave the long-term mess to the next wave of their successors.

One possible counterargument could be that term limits might not actually “bind.” That is to say, ambitious politicians like Christie who believe they can be elected to higher office in the middle of their second term might still believe they could be elected to higher office at the same point in their service even if they were offered the possibility of a third or a fourth term. Perhaps they might feel they had already accomplished whatever they set out to accomplish, or at the very least that whatever accomplishments they had already racked up would make their resumé sufficiently attractive to the voters that they would be better off quitting while ahead (or quitting before their lackeys went rogue and closed down a bridge out of puerile spite, the time for which has, alas, already passed for Christie).

That’s certainly possible, but running for reelection as an incumbent is almost always easier than putting together a winning campaign for a completely new position. I would be surprised if term limits didn’t incentivize at least some politicians to take a leap they otherwise would not have or that they otherwise might have postponed, and in fact there is some research, in addition to the work referenced by Mann and Ornstein, suggesting this could be the case.

If the polling is to be trusted, a large chunk of the New Jersey electorate finds Chris Christie’s pre-campaign antics distasteful, and many of his detractors take pleasure in the fact that he’s guaranteed to leave office less than three years from today. But what those detractors may be neglecting is the possibility that his antics are in part the result of that very guarantee, and that, paradoxically, allowing him to hang around New Jersey a while longer would make him more dedicated to the people of the state and more attentive to their needs.

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