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Fiscal cliff: A modest proposal

November 20, 2012: 1:43 PM ET

We need time to properly reset our national priorities and get our fiscal house in order, so let's push the fiscal cliff to 2014 and go with a tax surcharge on those earning more than $500,000.President Obama Fiscal Cliff

By Ram Charan

FORTUNE -- The job of the President of the United States is often compared with that of a CEO of a large corporation. In both cases, the buck stops at the top.

But while CEOs can make tough calls unilaterally and hold their direct reports accountable for executing them, the President must rally support for his plans from both sides of the political aisle. The checks and balances built into our political system require consensus among political leaders who are accountable to their respective parties and their individual constituencies.

President Obama's challenge in addressing our country's fiscal problem is twofold. He must not only figure out how best to avert the fiscal cliff before the end of the year but he also must do it in a way that garners support among political opponents. The solution must satisfy the ratings agencies so that the United States is not at risk of further downgrades and, at the same time, support economic growth -- and therefore job creation.

Developing a proper balance between austerity and growth is actually the easier part of the equation. The bigger challenge for the President is in creating a consensus of five -- getting himself on the same page with the four most powerful leaders in Congress: House Speaker John Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who then must bring Congress along with them on a proposed solution by January 1.

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While I believe each of these five political leaders wants to resolve the budget issue ahead of the fiscal cliff, it is unlikely that they will be able to resolve their differences in the short period of time before the end of the year.

If we are being realistic about the situation, solving this problem is a task not likely to be done well in 50 days. There simply is not enough time to build a solution that works for the country over the long-term, let alone time to get Congress on board to support it. Unfortunately, each of these four leaders and the President appear to be deeply dug into their respective positions. Policy created now, in haste, will be a poor compromise in which no one has ample time to consider the long-term ramifications.

We need time to properly reset our national priorities and get our fiscal house in order, which is why I propose the following alternative: Congress and the President should agree to extend the fiscal cliff legislation to January 1, 2014, freeze spending for 2013 at 2012 levels, and, along with that, impose a one-time tax "surcharge" for those who earn more than $500,000 annually -- an additional 5% added to the 2012 tax bill of those high income earners.

This proposal would allow us to take a much-needed pause. It gives President Obama time to build consensus among the five political leaders, signals to the rating agencies that the U.S. is taking action, and encourages everyone at all levels of government to resourcefully manage what they have.

This solution is not painless but it is far less damaging than the fiscal cliff. It allows the new Congress and the President to start fresh in January, when they can attack the issue with new energy and in the context of a new global and national financial reality. And importantly, it buys time to consider the unintended consequences of their solution.

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The United States sets the tone for other countries and, right now, our global leadership is lagging. We are giving the impression that we're too politically divided to get our fiscal house in order. This is a dangerous message to send to the world.

The time is at hand for the Washington 5 to start 2013 on the right footing. Be decisive in finding a simple way to stop us from going over the fiscal cliff, and then take care to craft a comprehensive compromise that will strengthen us.

Ram Charan is a business advisor to CEOs and corporate boards, and coauthor of Execution and 14 other books. His most recent book, Global Tilt, will be released by Crown this winter.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article erroneously referred to House Minority Nancy Pelosi as Senate Minority Leader and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as House Minority Leader. These references have been corrected. 

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