In two weeks, Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina will become the first chairman of the new House oversight subcommittee on TARP, Financial Services, and Bailouts of Public and Private Programs. In the meantime, he is thinking about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was on 60 Minutes this Sunday talking about the need to cut state spending and trim state employees and their pensions.
"You look at his stuff—and, granted, he puts his good stuff on YouTube—but he is so blunt about what the state's facing," says McHenry. "There's one video I've seen where he's talking to a teacher. And the teacher's like, 'We work so hard.' " McHenry does his best imitation of the pathos in the teacher's voice. "Christie says, 'You know what? You don't have to do it.' "
McHenry sits back, holding out his hands in a "can you believe this?" gesture. "You watch that, and you think—that's a governor. And that's a teacher. The teacher always wins, man!"
It's a popular Republican belief—in New Jersey, in D.C., everywhere else—that the success of the governor of New Jersey is proving that spending cuts and austerity are no longer the stuff of Heritage Foundation daydreams. Christie is balancing some fee increases with painful cuts, and selling this by dressing down Democrats and union leaders.
There's a debate to have about Christie, how effective he is, and how truly popular he is. There's no debate anymore that Republicans want to follow his model. In January 2011, some number of Republican congressmen are planning to issue an ultimatum to states: There will be no additional aid, and you have to balance your budgets.
"I'm going to introduce a resolution when the new Congress begins, stating that the House will not bail out state budgets," says Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. "The message is: States, don't think the federal government is going to bail you out. Pay attention to this now."
McHenry is one of several congressmen who'll be empowered to demand transparency from states, especially on the shortfalls in their pension funds. This is something that public-employee unions see as a coordinated attack on their members, but Republicans say the unions are going to lose.
"The potential here," says McHenry, "is that we're facing a generational shift based on economic realities, based on our expectations for government, on what government does, and how government delivers services."
For evidence of this, Republicans can look at polling in Christie's state. According to the Nov. 11 Quinnipiac Poll, a survey that's conducted in the state every few months, voters who were asked about how to bring the budget in line favored service cuts over tax hikes by a 36-point margin. On every budget question, voters agree with Christie. Seventy-eight percent of voters want public workers to have their wages frozen, 63 percent want them furloughed, and 54 percent of voters are in favor of just laying them off.
Personally, Christie is fairly popular. He was elected with slightly less than 50 percent support; he hovers around 50 percent support. The important thing is that he's stayed at that level by making cuts and warning that he needs to make more on the backs of public workers. Support for a public worker wage freeze is up seven points since Christie was inaugurated. The belief that the teachers' unions are "playing a negative role in improving New Jersey's educational system" is up from a nine-point margin when Christie was inaugurated to an 18-point margin now.