Debt Limit 101

Debt Limit 101

The U.S. is about to reach its debt limit, and lawmakers are in a bitter debate about whether to raise it. If they don't, another financial crisis could occur.

Published May 2, 2011

Addressing the nation’s looming debt-limit ceiling is going to be at the top of congressional lawmakers’ to-do list when they return to Washington on May 2. In March the national debt totaled a little more than $14 trillion. Some Republicans plan to use the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip to force President Obama and Democrats to agree to deeper budget cuts. Some already are threatening to vote against raising the debt limit, arguing that when an individual cannot pay his or her credit card bill the bank doesn’t raise the limit so that person can spend more. The same principle should be applied to the federal government as well, they say.


As the July 8 deadline to raise the debt limit approaches, here’s what the American public needs to know:


What is the national debt?


When the federal government needs to spend more money than it can raise through tax revenues, it borrows the money by selling Treasury bills, notes, bonds and savings bonds to the public, including corporations and state, local and foreign governments, such as Japan and China, which is the nation’s biggest lender.


What is the debt limit?


The debt limit is the maximum amount of money that Congress will allow the federal government to borrow, which must be agreed on in both chambers. The first national debt limit was set in 1917 to finance World War I. Since 1962, Congress has raised it 74 times overall and 10 times in the past 10 years.


The national debt is currently set at $14.294 trillion. It has increased by about $3.5 trillion during President Obama’s administration because of the financial crisis he inherited.


What happens if the debt limit isn’t raised?


That’s when the American public will really start to care, because in order to pay interest and principal on the debt already owed, the federal government would have to make deep spending cuts in a variety of programs, including tax refunds, Social Security, military payrolls, Medicare and other government-sponsored programs upon which the nation’s most vulnerable populations and communities depend.


(Photo:Anthony Devlin/Landov) 

Written by Joyce Jones


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