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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Legislative Procedures for Adjusting the Public Debt Limit: A Brief Overview

Bill Heniff Jr.
Analyst on Congress and the Legislative Process

Almost all borrowing by the federal government is conducted by the Treasury Department, within the restrictions established by a single, statutory limit on the total amount of debt that may be outstanding at any time. Most adjustments to the debt limit have been increases, but sometimes the change has been a reduction.

The annual budget resolution is required to include appropriate levels of the public debt for each fiscal year covered by the resolution. In some years, the budget resolution includes amounts of the public debt specifically subject to limit or amounts by which the public debt subject to limit is recommended to be changed. Because a budget resolution does not become law, Congress and the President must enact legislation to implement budget resolution policies. Under current legislative procedures, the House and Senate may develop and consider legislation adjusting the debt limit in one of two ways: (1) under regular legislative procedures in both chambers, either as freestanding legislation or as a part of a measure dealing with other topics; or (2) as part of the budget reconciliation process provided for under the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. The House also has initiated debt limit legislation under its former House Rule XXVIII (the so-called “Gephardt rule”); the House repealed the rule at the beginning of the 112
th Congress.

During the period from 1940 to the present, Congress and the President have enacted a total of 91 measures adjusting the public debt limit—72 under regular legislative procedures in both chambers, 15 under the Gephardt rule, and 4 under reconciliation procedures. The current debt limit is $14.294 trillion.

Date of Report: May 2, 2011
Number of Pages: 10
Order Number: RS21519
Price: $29.95

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