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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Debt Limit: History and Recent Increases



D. Andrew Austin
Analyst in Economic Policy

Mindy R. Levit
Analyst in Public Finance


Total federal debt can increase in two ways. First, debt increases when the government sells debt to the public to finance budget deficits and acquire the financial resources needed to meet its obligations. This increases debt held by the public. Second, debt increases when the federal government issues debt to certain government accounts, such as the Social Security, Medicare, and Transportation trust funds, in exchange for their reported surpluses. This increases debt held by government accounts. The sum of debt held by the public and debt held by government accounts is the total federal debt. Surpluses reduce debt held by the public, while deficits raise it.

On August 2, 2011, President Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA; S. 365; P.L. 112-25), after an extended debt limit episode. The federal debt had reached its legal limit on May 16, 2011, prompting Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to declare a debt issuance suspension period, allowing certain extraordinary measures to extend Treasury’s borrowing capacity. The BCA included provisions aimed at deficit reduction and allowing the debt limit to rise between $2,100 billion and $2,400 billion in three stages, the latter two subject to congressional disapproval. Once the BCA was enacted, a presidential certification triggered a $400 billion increase, raising the debt limit to $14,694 billion, and a second $500 billion increase on September 22, 2011, as a disapproval measure (H.J.Res. 77) only passed the House. A January 12, 2012, presidential certification triggered a third, $1.2 trillion increase on January 28, 2012. On January 18, 2012, the House passed a disapproval measure (H.J.Res. 98) on a 239-176 vote. The Senate declined to take up a similar measure (S.J.Res. 34), on a 44-52 vote on January 26, 2012. Federal debt reached its limit on December 31, 2012. Extraordinary measures are being used to meet federal payments, which are estimated to allow payment of government obligations until mid-February or early March 2013. Those estimates are subject to uncertainty.

Congress has always placed restrictions on federal debt. The form of debt restrictions, structured as amendments to the Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917, evolved into a general debt limit in 1939. Congress has voted to raise the debt limit 11 times since 2001, due to persistent deficits and additions to federal trust funds. Congress raised the limit in June 2002, and by December 2002 the U.S. Treasury asked Congress for another increase, which passed in May 2003. In June 2004, the U.S. Treasury asked for another debt limit increase and again in October 2004, which was enacted on November 19, 2004. In 2005, reconciliation instructions in the FY2006 budget resolution (H.Con.Res. 95) included a debt limit increase. After warnings from the U.S. Treasury, Congress passed an increase that the President signed on March 20. In 2007, Congress approved legislation (H.J.Res. 43) to raise the debt limit by $850 billion to $9,815 billion that the President signed September 29, 2007.

The recent economic slowdown led to sharply higher deficits in recent years, which led to a series of debt limit increases. The Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (H.R. 3221), signed into law (P.L. 110-289) on July 30, 2008, included a debt limit increase. The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (H.R. 1424), signed into law on October 3 (P.L. 110-343), raised the debt limit again. The debt limit rose a third time in less than a year to $12,104 billion with the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 on February 13, 2009 (ARRA; H.R. 1), which was signed into law on February 17, 2009 (P.L. 111-5). Following that measure, the debt limit was subsequently increased by $290 billion to $12,394 billion (P.L. 111- 123) in a stand-alone debt limit bill on December 28, 2009, and by $1.9 trillion to $14,294 billion on February 12, 2010 (P.L. 111-139), as part of a package that also contained the Statutory Pay- As-You-Go Act of 2010.



Date of Report: January 10, 2013
Number of Pages: 37
Order Number: RL31967
Price: $29.95

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