(Associated Press)

The below is a guest post by political scientists Phil Rocco (who is completing his PhD at Berkeley) and Chloe Thurston (who has a post-doctoral position at Johns Hopkins).

As recent e-mails and text messages from Trenton reveal, political manipulation is at the heart of the traffic disaster in Fort Lee, N.J. David Wildstein and Bill Baroni, political appointees to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, appear to have made mundane lane-closure decisions a matter of personal political vengeance. While this may seem de rigueur in a state like New Jersey, the story of how political appointees like Wildstein and Baroni gained so much decision-making power is actually much more complicated. It is a story of how seismic institutional changes at the Port Authority transformed an organization that was initially insulated from political corruption. However consequential, these changes have happened gradually, invisible to the public eye.

The by-laws of the Port Authority, a bi-state agency founded in 1921 and jointly controlled by the New York and New Jersey governors, offer a jarring contrast with the recent political scandal. According to the by-laws, governors like Chris Christie are supposed to have minimum control over day-to-day policy decisions. Rather, “the Executive Director shall hold executive staff responsible and accountable for making financial, management, and operational decisions in compliance with the policies established by the Board of Commissioners.” The two governors appoint six commissioners who set policy and strategic priorities, but commissioners’ appointments are staggered so that their terms outlast a governor’s. According to the political scientist Jameson Doig, the Port Authority was designed this way to function as a bureaucratic institution and not as a tool for dispensing political patronage.

Though its progressive-era founders clearly intended the Port Authority to be insulated from political control and to operate according to the commands of “rational expertise,” the agency has become highly politicized. As Dana Rubenstein notes:

Tradition of indeterminate age has it that the New York governor gets to pick the executive director and the New Jersey governor gets to pick the chairman of the board. Tradition of a more recent vintage … also has it that the governor of New Jersey gets to appoint a deputy executive director to work under the New York governor’s executive director.

This shift in governance has allowed governors to circumvent the Board of Commissioners (which still retains formal powers to set policy and strategic priorities) to appoint politically connected individuals to a host of Port Authority jobs. As Doig argues, this shift has also led to “managerial confusion” and has impeded the ability of managers to fire underperforming employees. And as we saw with the lane-closures scandal, the structure is also prone to petty political manipulation.

So how did the Port Authority turn into a “patronage mess” despite the intentions of its designers to insulate it “from patronage demands and other short-term political pressures”? Our forthcoming article in the Journal of Public Policy, which provides a framework for identifying long-term institutional change, suggests that the Port Authority’s transformation is best characterized as institutional conversion (a term we borrow from Wolfgang Streeck and Kathleen Thelen, among others). Over long periods of time, institutions can evolve in ways that allow them to function very differently from what their creators may have intended. For example, as Kathleen Thelen points out, though German vocational training programs were initially designed in the 1890s to meet the needs of employers alone, labor and employers clashed for decades about the meaning of skills training and the purpose of employer self-governance. Eventually, labor was able to manipulate ambiguities in the rules without formally changing them, resulting in a more labor-friendly system by the 1960s.

The problem with identifying institutional changes like these is that they occur almost imperceptibly. Even though the informal practices of politicians, bureaucrats at the Port Authority have changed substantially in the last 20 years, these changes were not the product of new laws or formal, easily traceable decisions. Though it is difficult to make a case for the operation of a process that is arguably invisible, our article suggests invisible processes such as conversion can leave behind visible traces, helping political scientists to identify processes of institutional change even in the absence of formal legal reforms. Tracing the institutional origins of the Fort Lee scandal provides a good example of how an institution changed through two of the traces we highlight in our article: the manipulation of an institution’s ambiguity and the existence of change agents with the discretion to reinterpret the rules without formally changing them.

Though the Port Authority’s initial institutional design intended to limit the power of governors and political decision-making, this goal was contested from the very beginning. The intergovernmental structure of the authority (a form of “horizontal federalism) forced governors from two states to coordinate their policy choices, but this was never easy, and led to a high degree of conflict within the organization. After a highly visible public battle, George Pataki and Christie Todd Whitman used their discretion to broker a deal in 1995 to appoint Pataki’s choice, George Marlin, to executive director on the condition that Whitman was allowed to “install a deputy director under Marlin.” Doing this required manipulating legal ambiguity in the Port Authority’s existing rules. While the deal to install Marlin was forged out of short-run political considerations, this new arrangement for governor appointments persisted basically without controversy, and political rifts between successive New York and New Jersey governors only ruptured the day to day application of the rules more severely, leading to an increasing role for political appointees.

Political corruption may be difficult to avoid in New Jersey and elsewhere, but it does not happen in an institutional vacuum. Rather, gradual changes and conflict in large, complex institutions can profoundly alter the ability of politicians and bureaucrats to engage in corrupt behavior. As our own work highlights, understanding this behavior requires attention to history and sensitivity to long-term processes that often happen out of plain sight.

Philip Rocco is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on issues of federalism, institutional change and the politics of public policy and administration, including health reform. His dissertation examines how policy conflicts between liberals and conservatives reshaped the American federal system in the postwar period.

Chloe Thurston is a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University and holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. She is revising her dissertation into a book examining the politics around consumer access to credit in the United States since the 1930s.