Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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New Jersey (State of)
The Garden State really has two different states of mind. The motto is Liberty and Prosperity.

New Jersey: A Keg Tapped at Both Ends (1)


When Ben Franklin referred to New Jersey as a keg tapped at both ends, he was speaking of the land traffic down its eighty-mile waist, connecting the ports of New York and Philadelphia.Trenton is located at the northernmost navigable point of the Delaware River, and Perth Amboy (the original capital) is tucked behind Staten Island in New York's outer harbor. New Jersey continues to connect the two metropolitan areas, but today with rail and highways following somewhat different paths. Either way, Franklin's quip continues to apply to the sociology and politics of the former Garden State.

Frank Mazzei, chief of the legislative library of the Statehouse in Trenton, appears to be the world's expert on early New Jersey history. From him, we learn the first constitution of the state was an informal sort of thing, whose authority derived from the personal reputations of the men who wrote it, leaders of the rebellion or otherwise notable in the region in 1776. Under the circumstances, the rebels against the king were very concerned to limit the powers of the new Governor to little more than a clerk or administrator. Real power was given to the Legislature, who made laws mainly in response to petitions from the populace. New Jersey had very low taxes. As time went on, there were several revised constitutions, and the 1966 version has ended up creating the most powerful Governor in the nation -- and the highest taxes, plus a $58 billion unfunded debt for state employee pensions.

{top quote}
Trenton has an urban revival but -- so far -- very few visitors tour the much-restored Statehouse. It's worth a trip. {bottom quote}
Dr. Fisher

Incidentally, the power of citizens to introduce legislative bills by petition may possibly persist, but has definitely been forgotten. The source of the Governor's power lies in two abilities: to appoint the top officials of the state including the Supreme Court, and to exercise a "line item" veto. It really seems extraordinary that two vague provisions would lead to such a profound change in the nature of the government, but here's a stern warning about some similar proposals currently noised about on the federal level. The Republic has fumbled its way into a delicate balance among the three branches of government; anything which gives one branch the power to appoint the other, or to defy the wishes of the other, upsets that balance. New Jersey's Supreme Court is restrained in its ability to thwart the actions of either the Executive or the Legislative branches by finding its own appointment in the hands of the Governor; unlike similar Federal appointments by the President to the U.S. Supreme Court, the New Jersey Justices must retire at the age of 70. That seems like a small difference, possibly even a good one. But in the case of Justice Stevens, George Bush would achieve 6-3 decisions instead of 5-4; that would make a big difference. The votes might even still be 5-4, but points at issue would migrate further toward the President's position.

{The State House of New Jersey}
The State House of New Jersey

Similarly, a line item veto would greatly diminish the power of the U.S. Congress, because it limits the ability to compromise. There are many situations where two bills, each of which would surely fail, are welded together into an omnibus bill which effectively passes both of them. There are other situations where a critical vote in Congress is purchased at the cost of some egregious pork barrel favor to a hold-out member. It's easy to see why editors and commentators screech with outrage at such contemptible tactics. And in fact, the underlying point is that the Congressional leaders who sacrifice their principles in order to advance a significant proposal, know that even better than outsiders do. It hurts, you must hold your nose, but it must nevertheless be done. This is a price that leaders of a republic must pay for progress and one reason so few are willing to engage in it. The astonishing point about the New Jersey experiment is that the line item veto does not save money, it effectively results in unrestrained spending, increased taxes and public indebtedness. If someone would write an eight-hundred-page book instead of a three-paragraph editorial on the topic of the line-item veto, reporters in the gallery might be less disposed to malign the American system. What's greatly underestimated in American politics is the relentless energy with which politicians will exploit even the smallest subtle change in the rules. That generates two strong forces: a reflex opposition to changing the rules in the slightest degree; and a constant scheming to change rules for purposes other than the stated ones.

In an era when we are endlessly reminded that America is a nation of laws and not of men, it is disconcerting to learn that the New Jersey legislature considers over 11,000 new laws a year, and enacts about 300 of them. Just to record the three hundred laws would fill a thousand-page book, which even a full-time lawyer would have difficulty reading, let alone remembering. In this connection, a story is told of the law about driving while sleepy. If it's illegal to drive while intoxicated, then surely it should be illegal to drive while too sleepy to remain alert. The New Jersey legislature debated the fine points of this idea, eventually deciding that it should be illegal to remain at work for more than 24 hours. It took longer than that to pass the legislation, so the legislature found itself in the position of making it illegal -- for itself to drive home.


Camden After the Fall: Decline and Renewal in a Post-Industrial City: Howard Gillette Jr.: ISBN-13: 978-0812219685 Amazon

Originally published: Sunday, September 16, 2007; most-recently modified: Friday, May 24, 2019

Check that off the list of tignhs I was confused about.
Posted by: Tambrey   |   Sep 7, 2011 12:32 PM
Touchdown! That's a raelly cool way of putting it!
Posted by: Helene   |   Sep 6, 2011 8:19 PM