The Corruption of Bipartisanship

New York and New Jersey share a spate of recent corruption allegations and unusual cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. Is that a coincidence?

Governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo, in happier times (Mark Lennihan / Pool / Reuters)

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.

One common risk factor for scandal is single-party domination. If one political party controls a state long enough, the opposition party fails to be an effective counterweight and the ruling party may lapse into scandal through sloppiness or lack of competition. I wrote about this pattern a few years ago, discussing the travails of South Carolina, where Democratic Party politicians are perpetual losers. (In that article, I also suggested the Empire State might be getting its own act together, after years of Democratic-dominated corruption, under Cuomo. Oops!)

But bipartisanship holds its own risks, as New York and New Jersey show. Last year in The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch argued that what the nation really needs is a bit more corruption. He pointed to the dysfunction caused by the abolition of earmarks in Congress, a step intended to stop corruption but also stopped dealmaking in D.C. More broadly, he said, old-school Tammany Hall politics aren't such a bad thing:

Earnest campaigns to take the politics out of politics can make governing more difficult, with results that serve no one very well. The next time you see some new reform scheme touted in the name of stopping corruption, pause to recall the wisdom of another old-school pol, the late Representative Jimmy Burke, of Massachusetts: “The trouble with some people is that they think this place is on the level.”

This isn't to say that there isn't a line between legal and illegal deal-making (or, as the Tammany mandarin George Washington Plunkitt phrased it, between honest and dishonest graft). If the charges against Baroni, Kelly, Skelos, and Silver are proven, it will show that they went past the sort of backroom pressure that makes politics run. But both inquiries are inseparable from bipartisanship—in New York, from Cuomo's apparent move to protect allies by shutting down the Moreland Commission, and in New Jersey, from the fervid quest to get Democratic support for the Republican governor.

Bipartisanship isn't a bad thing—but voters shouldn't imagine that politicians working across party lines will make everything work beautifully. As New Jerseyans and New Yorkers can attest, comity has its downsides too.