The Sandbaggers

Republicans have the teabaggers. In the New Jersey legislature, Democrats have the sandbaggers.

Sandbagging, for those who don’t know, is a practice in golf, chess, go, and other sports in which players are sorted or handicapped by ability. It is generally considered to be cheating. Sandbaggers deliberately perform below their potential in order to raise their handicap or lower their rating, thus giving themselves an advantage in future competition (i.e. winning bets in golf or winning tournaments restricted to players of a certain ability level).

An article in the Record, which Thurman Hart brought to our attention earlier this week, alleges that New Jersey Democrats are considering giving up the fight over the FY2011 budget in order to strengthen their position in next year’s legislative elections. Democratic leaders figure that they can hang higher property taxes resulting from reduced aid and rebates in Christie’s first budget around the governor’s neck. But it would be difficult for them to disown a budget that passes the Democratic legislature. To avoid responsibility for the budget, Democrats will resort to sandbagging. Instead of negotiating for a better budget, they’ll refuse to negotiate altogether, and give the Republicans everything. Legislative leaders will essentially hand control of the chamber to the Republican minority while the budget is being considered. Assuming they can win a handful of Democratic votes in each chamber, Republicans will be able to pass a budget little different from the one they would write if they held majorities in both houses.

There are several problems with this approach, the least of which is that it will result in worse policy outcomes for New Jersey. Unless Christie is able resist any compromise on the budget without being held accountable for its delay, Democrats can still improve the budget.

Furthermore, as Thurman pointed out earlier, they’re falling down on their jobs. We elect lawmakers to make laws. Democrats in the legislature seem to have calculated that abandoning the budget process (and thus abandoning their jobs) will help them in the next election. This is the same cynical thinking that we see from the Republican minority in Congress that deliberately refuses to cooperate with Obama not because they disagree with everything that he proposes, but because they think obstinacy and obstruction will yield them more seats in November.

Finally, it probably won’t work. Democrats are essentially telling voters: “You shouldn’t count that one against us, because we weren’t really trying.” They might as well say, “We only give a shit when it’s politically expedient.” Now there’s a message that will fire up the base. If historical trends are any guide, turnout in the 2011 off-year elections will be low, and support from the base will be particularly important.

Unless they offer more than token resistance to Christie’s budget, Democrats will have a hard time selling themselves to the voters in 2011. Why should voters believe that they’ll behave any differently in the last two years of Christie’s term than they did in the first two? Why would Democrats be any less inclined to let the Republicans implement policies that will hurt the state when the governor is coming up for re-election as well as the legislature? Even if we do gain seats, we’ll probably still be short of a veto-proof majority. Republicans can expect a favorable legislative map from redistricting after a majority of votes won them only a minority of seats in the 2009 Assembly elections.

In golf, sandbaggers cheat their opponents. Democratic lawmakers are cheating their constiutents. It’s time for legislative Democrats to stop sandbagging and start doing their jobs.

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