The debate continued in Trenton yesterday over Governor Chris Christie’s proposal to slash the State Commission of Investigation’s (SCI) budget and place it under the administrative control of the Office of the Comptroller. Chairing a hearing of the upper chamber’s Legislative Oversight Committee, State Senator Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) said the Governor had “chutzpah” to even dream up such an idea and reiterated her commitment to stopping the merger. “I am not going to compromise on SCI,” she said. “The public cannot lose its watchdog.”
As Jason Springer has written about at length, the SCI was established in 1968 as an agency independent of executive branch interference. Since its establishment, the nonpartisan commission has taken on the mafia, spendthrift governing bodies, and most recently, the gross overcompensation of local appointed officials. And while political oddsmakers are calling the proposal dead on arrival, its introduction by the Christie Administration is a disturbing development in the centuries old tug of war between the executive and legislative branches of government.
At the core of the debate over SCI’s future is the principle of separation of powers. In his 1973 book, The Imperial Presidency, former Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger noted that the “greatest importance of the separation of powers lies precisely in the old theory of the Founding Fathers: to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power. The separation of powers provides the vital mechanism of self-correction in the American system. It is the means of protection against the resurgence of the imperial Presidency. It is the ultimate safeguard of accountability.”
One would be remiss not to point out that Schlesinger’s concept of the Imperial Presidency was influenced by the New Deal, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and, even in those pre-Watergate days, President Nixon’s abuse of power. Chris Christie is no Richard Nixon, but his actions indicate he has no trouble with the concept of an Imperial Governorship. Legislators – and the public at large – would be wise to guard against the erosion of separation of powers here in New Jersey. What the Christie Administration believes are efforts to streamline a bloated bureaucracy unfortunately expand the powers of the Governor’s Front Office at the expense of the Legislature. And while merging the SCI with the executive branch Office of the Comptroller poses no immediate threat to our state’s system of constitutional government, like a snow ball, this gradual encroachment upon the Legislature’s prerogatives can ultimately threaten the checks and balances that provide the “safeguard of accountability” Schlesinger referred to.
It’s good news that the Democratic majority is standing up to Governor Christie’s plan to marginalize the SCI. While the Governor has the option of using the line-item veto to eliminate funding for the SCI in next year’s budget, he should reconsider. For this is not a partisan issue. With an economy in shambles, a budget in crisis, and public confidence in state government the lowest it’s been in living memory, the last thing we need is an Imperial Governor.