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The debt ceiling, explained.

Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling or risk a constitutional crisis. Here’s why.



The U.S. Treasury Department is quickly approaching the debt ceiling and lawmakers will have to move fast to raise it before it's too late.

Republicans in both the House and the Senate have repeatedly listed raised the debt ceiling as one of their many reasons for opting to work through their August recess and members of the Trump administration have urged Congress to do so before the summer break.

Why all the urgency? What is the debt ceiling? Do we owe someone money? Should we be worried?

Every few years, Washington once again finds itself in a debate over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling, which is a very strange economic policy that is unique to the United States.

It was created under the Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917, which put a cap on the amount of bonds the U.S. treasury could sell, essentially limiting the U.S. government's debt.

"The debt ceiling says that Congress only allows debt up to a certain level, and because we keep piling on new debt we have to periodically raise that level that's allowed," said Philip Wallach, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

"We have a budgeting process that has Congress decide how much it wants to spend and how much it wants to tax, but then we have a separate process for determining how much debt is allowed to be outstanding," Wallach explained.

Currently, the U.S. debt is over $19 trillion. So what happens if we go over the debt ceiling? It would put the U.S. Treasury Department in a very sticky situation.

The U.S. Treasury still has to pay the bills, whether we hit the debt ceiling or not, but the problem if we do reach the debt limit is that now the Treasurer will have to essentially write checks illegally, taking on new debt in order to pay for things like pensions for retired federal employees against the rules set by Congress.

"If not handled carefully it could become sort of a full-blown Constitutional crisis," Wallach said.

So to avoid any issues, Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling. That's nothing new. Since 1960, Congress has extended the debt deadline or raised the ceiling 78 times, according the the U.S. Treasury Department.

But in recent years, some lawmakers have taken the opportunity to turn the debt ceiling into a fiscal debate.

"What all these debt ceiling fights have been about in recent years is Congress saying, 'well, let's take this moment of needing to raise the ceiling and revisit our spending choices, because seem to be in an unsustainable spending pattern here.'"

Fiscal conservatives say they want to get something in return for raising the debt ceiling. This time around the ultra conservative House Freedom Caucus plans to demand the Treasurer rescind unobligated federal funds from agencies; sell off certain government assets; and other measures to reduce the debt.

"If we don’t get something back in return, I don’t know why we would bother to do it because that means we’re perpetuating the situation we’ve got now," Alabama Republican Rep. Bradley Byrne said.

Fight or no fight, experts say Congress will definitely raise the debt ceiling, it just might be at the very last minute.

"Congress' inclination is certainly not to do these things much in advance these days, it's to wait until the very last moment when the treasury says 'Really, we can't mess around anymore.'"

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