The Fiscal Cliff Debacle: American Exceptionalism Under Attack

Posted on January 2, 2013. Filed under: Debt Ceiling, Economy, Financial Crisis, Fiscal Cliff | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Madeleine Albright, Edgar Perez and Condoleezza Rice at CME Group's Global Financial Leadership Conference 2012

Edgar Perez with Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretaries of State for Presidents Clinton and Bush, respectively

Last night, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill undoing tax increases for more than 99% of households, providing a temporary victory to President Obama and Democrats as Republicans vowed to fight them in the upcoming months for spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. The 257-167 vote just before midnight topped a drama-filled day as Republicans initially balked at a bipartisan Senate measure. Ultimately 151 of 236 Republicans voted no. Obama said he’d sign the bill into law.

The final days of the tension surrounding the fiscal cliff of scheduled tax increases and spending cuts illustrated once again the partisan struggle that has made U.S. budget policy unpredictable and prone to crises as deadlines loom. Obama wielded the leverage he gained in his November 6 re-election, securing most of the tax increases he sought without sacrificing the spending cuts he had offered to Republicans in hopes of a larger deficit-reduction grand bargain.

Republicans immediately turned to their next battle, a bid to use the need to raise the nation’s $16.4 trillion debt ceiling to force Obama to accept cuts in entitlement programs such as Medicare. Congress must act as early as mid-February to prevent a default and the dispute may reprise a similar August 2011 episode that led to a downgrade of the U.S. credit rating.

Is the U.S. able to continue giving lessons in American exceptionalism to a world that still respects and admire its past and present? How to explain to the world that current representatives of the American people are able to drive the country so close to a fiscal cliff, potentially dragging the rest of the world? No doubt the majority of Americans have stared at this show with disbelief and puzzlement. Until not so long ago, Americans believed politicians wouldn’t make things so difficult and would reach instead a measured and timely deal. Things didn’t have to go this far to technically miss the deadline.

The answer can be found inside our legal system through the constitution and its twenty seven amendments. In this particular case, section 4 of the fourteenth amendment to the United States Constitution gives the President unilateral authority to raise or ignore the national debt ceiling, and that if challenged the Supreme Court would likely rule in favor of expanded executive power or dismiss the case altogether for lack of standing, as argued by Jeffrey Rosen, legal affairs editor of The New Republic. Furthermore, the president’s role as the ultimate guardian of the constitutional order, charged with taking care that the laws be faithfully executed, provides him with the authority to raise the debt ceiling, as argued by Eric Posner, professor of law at the University of Chicago, and Adrian Vermeule, professor of law at Harvard University.

After the Great Recession of the 1920s, as President Franklin Roosevelt was moving ahead with his plans to confront the economic crisis, he hinted darkly that “it is to be hoped that the normal balance of executive and legislative authority may be wholly equal, wholly adequate to meet the unprecedented task before us. But it may be that an unprecedented demand and need for undelayed action may call for temporary departure from that normal balance of public procedure.” After this admonition, Congress gave Roosevelt the authorities he sought and he did have to follow through on his threat.

Last night Obama said he won’t “have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills they’ve already racked up.” Let’s just hope that President Obama, a former constitutional law professor himself, has the insight and courage to execute the agenda he was elected for leveraging all the tools provided within our constitutional framework. If he is successful, God bless him. If he fails, the American people will kick his party out of the White House in 2016. There is no excuse for inaction; there is no need for more drama; there is no time for more posturing; ultimately, there is no reason to hold America from displaying the exceptionalism Alexis de Tocqueville recognized centuries ago and the world expects for centuries to come.

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