New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s recent dustup with Republican Governor Chris Christie should be a warning to Washington Democrats as they enter the final stages of debt negotiations with conservative Republicans.

The story began when Sweeney, as he said, “stuck his neck out” to support legislation that forced the state’s 500,000 union workers to pay a much larger share of their health and pension benefits. New Jersey’s unions protested the bill and pushed for negotiations with the governor. Christie rejected this offer and forged ahead with one massive bill that will place a huge financial burden on New Jersey’s public workers. Besides shifting more costs to workers, the bill also raises the retirement age and freezes cost of living adjustments. Christie claimed the legislation would save the Garden State three hundred million dollars but other state officials have pegged the savings as low as ten million dollars. Nevertheless, Democrat Stephen Sweeney, in his role as Senate President, assisted the Republicans in moving the bill through the New Jersey Senate. Sweeney did so believing the governor would support certain programs in the budget that Democrats valued.

Governor Chris Christie used the line-item veto to make a painful impact on people's lives and play petty politics. Creative Commons caricature by DonkeyHotey

Governor Chris Christie used the line-item veto to make a painful impact on people’s lives and play petty politics. Creative Commons caricature by DonkeyHotey

Sweeney was livid at the cuts. He felt jilted by Christie and out of frustration went on a verbal tirade against the vacationing Christie calling him a “punk”, “Mr. Potter” and professing his desire to punch the governor in the head. Christie, who made his name using idiot bravado of his own, expressed sadness with Sweeney’s choice of words. However, the genuine sadness lies not with bickering, pathetic politicians but with the millions of New Jerseyans who will be affected by Christie’s cuts and Sweeney’s enabling behavior. They include the impaired children whose New Jersey center will cut back programs and resources because of the cuts. Not to mention that New Jersey’s colleges and universities will be raising tuition on students because of the governor’s draconian budget. Sweeney could have prevented these cuts if he hadn’t been swept up the faux Christie mania that’s been manufactured by members of the elite media who applaud him for his bullying and unbalanced approach to governing. The people of New Jersey, polls have shown, disapprove of Christies job performance. But Sweeney, instead of standing in solidarity with New Jersey’s public employees, joined Christie in shoving the cost shifting down their throats. What did he get in return for turning his back on the unions? Millions upon millions in cuts to programs that help those who need help the most during this period of economic malaise.

Washington Democrats should take note from what transpired in New Jersey. Where they should be fighting to protect federal programs and expenditures that assist the middle-class, working-class and poor, they are instead, as the New York Times disclosed this week, pondering deep cuts to Medicaid and Social Security with the hope that such cuts will bring Republicans on board. They will not. Once the conservatives in Congress get President Obama and his Democratic party to capitulate on this issue they will push for even deeper cuts, all along never ceding an inch on future tax increases which have to be part of any proposal to reduce the deficit.

No one denies the fact that these are tough and turbulent times. And no one wishes to halt the economy’s growth however anemic it may be. But most Americans also don’t want to see millions of their fellow citizens asked to sacrifice what they cannot afford, while the economic elites are left unfazed. Tough choices will have to be made but the burden of these tough choices should not fall on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens. It’s not logical. It’s not moral. And it’s not just.

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