New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's week started with a bad case of foot-in-mouth during his three-day trip to England, and went downhill from there, reaching new lows for ethics and good, open government -- even for New Jersey. However, the weeklong lampoons are about more than the Governor; they are about the unprecedented gap between the political machinations America gets and the democracy it deserves.
On Monday, the New York Times reported Christie's fondness for luxury items at the expense of others who stand to benefit from his actions, including billionaire Sheldon G. Adelson, who was opposing legislation then pending before the Governor. On Wednesday, Mother Jones summed up the 23 court battles he is waging, at taxpayer expense, to circumvent the state open public records law and keep secret state documents related to pay-to-play allegations, possible ethics violations, and his out-of-state tours which may also be, at least in part, on the public's dime. On Thursday morning, the U.S. Attorney's office announced a federal criminal investigation stemming from allegations that the Governor and his staff illegally quashed grand jury indictments against political allies in South Jersey. Then, late Thursday night, the news hit about a federal subpoena issued in an investigation which began with lane closures at the George Washington Bridge but has since expanded in scope to possible additional ethics violations by the Port Authority's former chairman, David Samson, who chaired Christie's transition team before being appointed to lead the agency.
That all adds up to a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week for Christie -- and for the rest of us. The Christie stories go to the heart of what's wrong with politics in America today. National polling indicates that the public's trust in government is at an all-time low -- just 13 percent of Americans say the government can be trusted to do what's right at least most of the time, compared with 36 percent in the wake of Watergate. A recent revelation by an anonymous Congressman explains what's eating at America's heart:
Campaigns are so expensive that the average member needs a million-dollar war chest every two years and spends 50 percent to 75 percent of their term in office raising money. Think about that. You're paying us to do a job, and we're spending that time you're paying us asking rich people and corporations to give us money so we can run ads convincing you to keep paying us to do this job. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that money is speech and corporations are people, the mega-rich have been handed free loudspeakers. Their voices, even out-of-state voices, are drowning out the desperate whispers of ordinary Americans.
As Common Cause President Miles Rapoport highlights, the Presidential 2016 races have already kicked off with a "Plutocrat Primary," as demonstrated by the nearly $1 billion the Koch brothers plan to raise and invest in the 2016 elections -- "a staggering sum that's more than the national Democratic or Republican Party organizations have ever spent on a campaign, and more than the combined spending of 2004 presidential nominees George W. Bush and John Kerry."
Christie, who is also the Chairman of the Republican Governors Association, doesn't see a problem with this, nor the proliferation of "dark money" in our electoral system -- money whose original sources are unknown as it is funneled through non-profit shell companies.
It's bigger than Christie. It's about a system that enables politicians to operate by their own set of rules for the benefit of a privileged few, and the dire need for systemic reform so that government can work for the rest of us.
Recent trends certainly suggest that the game is rigged. During the slow economic recovery between 2009 and 2012, the top 1 percent of New Jersey captured 80.5 percent of the state's total income growth. Meanwhile, the New Jersey Policy Perspective reports that the state has recovered only 40 percent of the jobs it lost during the Great Recession, compared to 91 percent nationwide. These figures correspond with the spike of childhood poverty in New Jersey to include nearly one-third of the state's youth in 2014, an increase of 20 percent since 2008.
The thing is, New Jersey is not unique here -- far from it. According to the Economic Analysis and Research Network, the average income of the bottom 99 percent of U.S. taxpayers grew by 18.9 percent between 1979 and 2007, while the average income of the top 1 percent grew over 10 times as much - by 200.5 percent.
A package of reform bills introduced in Congress on the fifth anniversary of Citizens United would go a long way toward restoring fairness and integrity to our democracy, and make it easier for average citizens to have their voices heard. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently reassured, the pendulum will swing in the other direction, and Citizens United and its progeny will surely be toppled eventually. Indeed, when winter is at its bleakest, the potential for spring's fruit is the sweetest. But not without hard work.