Dec 16, 2021

On December 16, 2021, President Biden signed legislation increasing the debt limit by $2.5 trillion to a total ceiling, or cap, of $31.4 trillion, which is expected to fund government activities through early 2023. By raising the debt ceiling, lawmakers avoided a significant economic crisis but they have yet to address America’s structural and unsustainable national debt.

Why is it Important to Raise the Debt Limit?

When lawmakers do not agree on raising or suspending the debt limit before the extraordinary measures are exhausted, there can be severe consequences for both the federal government and the economy. With spending limited to incoming revenues, the federal government can be forced to delay payments to employees, contracts can be violated, and payments to beneficiaries of government programs (including Social Security and Medicare) can be delayed or reduced. Although the Treasury Department would probably continue making timely principal and interest payments on the public debt, worries about the government’s creditworthiness would likely cause interest rates to rise and increase the government’s cost of borrowing.

A default of that nature would have serious economic consequences. A study by Macroeconomic Advisers and funded by PGPF analyzed the economic effects of fiscal brinksmanship during the “fiscal cliff” episode that was resolved on January 2, 2013. The study found that if the debt limit had caused even a brief restriction on borrowing at that time, the economy could have been pushed back into recession. A disruption in borrowing lasting two months could have led to a prolonged economic downturn and eliminated approximately 3 million jobs.

Does the Debt Limit Control Government Spending?

No — raising the debt limit does not authorize new spending. Rather, raising the debt limit simply enables the Treasury Department to fund commitments that the government has already incurred under previous decisions by elected officials. To control actual spending, lawmakers must change the laws that provide funding in the first place.

What Is the History of the Debt Limit?

The debt limit has been raised frequently in the past — 89 times since the beginning of 1959.

The statutory debt limit since 1979

SOURCES: U.S. Department of the Treasury, Daily Treasury Statement, December 2021; and Office of Management and Budget, Historical Tables, Budget of the United States Government: Fiscal Year 2022, May 2021.
NOTE: For periods during which the debt limit was suspended, the previous limit is shown. The statutory debt limit was most recently suspended from August 1, 2019 to July 31, 2021.

© 2021  Peter G. Peterson Foundation

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The debt limit has been raised by many Presidents and Congresses—controlled by both Democrats and Republicans.

The debt limit has been raised or suspended 87 times since the beginning of 1959

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What Are the Effects of These Fiscal Battles on the Economy?

Fiscal brinksmanship surrounding the debt limit has negative consequences. The threat of default puts into question America’s willingness to honor its commitments. Not only does that harm the image of our country’s creditworthiness, it also has an effect on the economy. The Macroeconomic Advisers’ report found that the uncertainty created by fiscal brinksmanship from 2010 to 2013 cost the economy 900,000 jobs. Fiscal uncertainty also affects the federal budget. The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated that delays in raising the debt limit in 2011 increased the government’s borrowing costs by $1.3 billion in that fiscal year; a subsequent report identified costs of $38 million to $70 million resulting from the debt limit impasse in 2013.

Conclusion

Stabilizing the debt is an essential part of any sound fiscal policy and economic strategy for America. Unless we make the hard decisions to close the structural imbalance between spending and revenues, federal debt will climb to unsustainable levels and put America’s economy and future prosperity at risk. Addressing our fiscal challenges is critical to ensure that America has adequate resources for investing in our future, protecting critically important programs, and creating robust economic growth and opportunity for coming generations.

Governing by crisis, engaging in fiscal brinksmanship, and threatening our nation’s creditworthiness are not effective means of addressing our fiscal situation. Instead, Congress should use the formal budget process as an opportunity to develop effective reforms that address our fiscal challenges and improve our economic outlook.

What Does the Debt Mean for Our Future?

We all have a responsibility to build a brighter fiscal and economic future for the next generation.

National Debt Clock

See the latest numbers and learn more about the causes of our high and rising debt.