Shutdown, Debt Ceiling: The Constitutional Limits of the World Superpower

U.S. Government Shutdown Photo:

U.S. Government Shutdown

Since October 1, the United States administration has been functioning at minimum capacity due to the Republican-led House of Representatives and the Democratic-led Senate’s inability to reach a consensus over next year’s budget. Meanwhile, they are also negotiating another raise of the country’s legal debt ceiling – the current one will be reached on October 17th, blocking all Federal State expenses.

As seen from France, the crisis seems surreal. How can such a dominant force in the world still remain at the mercy of a Constitution written before electricity was even a conceivable possibility for the human race? Indeed, the crisis is complex, as it is predicated on two factors, one structural and one conjectural.

The structural factor is the Constitution and its rigor. Like in the United States, the French Government is not allowed to spend money without the consent of Parliament. But in case of a parliamentary blockage of the budget, which has to be voted on before January 1st, the 1958 French Constitution allows the Government to take a special executive order so that the continuity of public service – a fundamental principle in this country – is not threatened. A government shutdown is, therefore, impossible in France.

While the United States Constitution promotes the strict separation of powers and sacred principles, the French Constitution, written in the aftermath of a weak leadership regime, hopes to remain efficient in the midst of all possible crises. It is much more flexible thanks to the governmental majority in the lower house (the National Assembly) and its superiority over the Senate.

The French system prevents such a conjectural crisis, like the one responsible for the U.S. shutdown. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives has been engaged in a bitter debate with the Democratic President and its administration over Obamacare. Much noise has come from the pressure of Tea Party members, a right-wing faction that favors more radical candidates.

Meanwhile, in France, representatives are elected once every five years and a few weeks after the election of the President of the Republic. The President-elect party consequently enjoys a dynamic that allows it to secure the absolute majority in the National Assembly. The two-round election system leads to a multiparty system. Radicalism is therefore weakened by the necessity for the smaller, more radical parties to ally with the stronger centrist parties between the two rounds of the election.

The French system is built to favor centrist parties, giving one of them a strong majority, permitting it to govern without too much disruption. It seems strange to the French that the American government can be so easily paralyzed by its bi-partisanship. But meanwhile, the real debate over the France’s capacity to pay off its debts remains in the background.

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