Crashing Through the Debt Ceiling

Happy Tuesday. In accordance with the usual hurry-up-and-wait flow of Congressional action, we’ve got a full slate of legislative stuff to break down as the Senate plans to go to recess as early as next week. Let’s get right to it.

Crashing Through the Debt Ceiling

It’s been a while since Congress had its last regularly scheduled fight over the debt ceiling, but it’s about that time again now. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 suspended the debt ceiling entirely for a period of two years—a move that proved fortuitous, given the titanic pile of pandemic spending that lurked just around the corner. Over the weekend, however, that provision expired—automatically snapping the debt ceiling to the current level of debt and putting Congress on a short clock to raise the ceiling again.

As a matter of law, Congress decides how much money comes into and out of the hands of the federal government when it passes tax and spending bills. When tax revenues aren’t large enough to cover the spending Congress has authorized—which, in modern times, is always—the Treasury Department raises the difference by issuing bonds to borrow the rest. But the Treasury can only do this up to the limit prescribed by Congress—the federal debt ceiling. As total borrowing approaches the debt ceiling, Congress faces pressure to raise the limit, since the alternative—for the United States government to default on its bills—would risk financial catastrophe.

That catastrophe hasn’t arrived yet: The Biden administration has the ability to utilize accounting tools and emergency funds, called “extraordinary measures,” to pay the government’s bills and keep the country from going into default. But these measures are not inexhaustible, and at most can tide the government over for two or three months.

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