01/29/2014 03:53 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2014

Bridgegate: Patronage Run Amok

During his 12 years in the Senate, the late Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) blocked millions of dollars in federal grants to Syracuse University because, as a student, he declined to pay an $8 diploma fee and was denied his parchment scroll.

Gov. Chris Christie is in the long tradition of politicians who used political patronage to both reward friends and punish foes. There is nothing unusual in his giving large grants to supporters, while starving the districts of his opponents. But Christie's aides went far beyond the old rules, using their enormous power in a "public be damned" display. They jeopardized public safety by creating a four-day traffic jam that engulfed ambulances, medical personnel, as well as commuters on the George Washington Bridge.

Patronage used wisely is a powerful tool of governance. Mayors, governors and presidents who rewarded supporters with jobs, contracts, subsidies and other discretionary favors, have often been able to persuade balky legislators to support their initiatives. Those who disdained the use of patronage have been largely ineffective.

FDR created his alphabet agencies -- the SEC, WPA, CCC, FHA among others -- so that he would not be restricted by civil service regulations that governed hiring in cabinet agencies. Similarly, LBJ used his patronage powers to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Bill Clinton gave away the store -- highways, post offices, judgeships -- to enact NAFTA. Would Obamacare have become law without the Louisiana Purchase or the Cornhusker Kickback?

On the other hand, Jimmy Carter, who disdained patronage, saw his energy bill mangled by Congress, although he considered the energy issue "the moral equivalent of war."

There are many definitions of politics, including "the art of the possible," and "the art of compromise," but the best definition came from the late Jake Arvey, the Illinois Democratic boss, who said, "Politics is the art of putting people under obligation to you." And patronage is how it's done.

But there is a major caveat to the use of patronage: The appointees must be competent. Thus, President George W. Bush, who used FEMA as a dumping ground, found his poll numbers plummeting after Hurricane Katrina because his appointees simply couldn't do the job. Similarly, Gov. Christie's appointees to the Port Authority also lacked experience and judgment.

As the governor surely has learned, patronage is a two-edged sword: Its misuse can imperil a political career. Multiple investigations will reveal the governor's role in this scandal, and whether he will be the latest victim of patronage run amok.

Susan Tolchin is University Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University. Martin Tolchin is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Tolchins are coauthors of To the Victor: Political Patronage from the Clubhouse to the White House, (Random House, 1971), and Pinstripe Patronage: Political Favoritism from the Clubhouse to the White House... and Beyond (Paradigm, 2011).