On January 19, 2023, the outstanding debt of the U.S. government reached its statutory limit, commonly called the debt ceiling. The current limit was set by Congress at about $31.4 trillion in December 2021.1
On the day the limit was reached, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen instituted well-established “extraordinary measures” to allow necessary borrowing for a limited period of time. While Yellen projects the extension will last until early June, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates it may last until sometime between July and September. However, the CBO cautions that if April tax revenues fall short of its projections, the Treasury could run out of funds earlier.2,3
Flexibility vs. Fiscal Fights
A debt ceiling was first established in 1917 to give the federal government more flexibility to borrow during World War I. Before that time, all borrowing had to be authorized by Congress in very specific terms, which made it difficult for the government to respond to changing needs.4
The modern debt ceiling, which aggregates almost all government debt under one limit, was established in 1939. Since 1960, it has been raised, modified, or suspended 78 times, mostly with little fanfare. That changed in 2011, when a political battle over the ceiling pushed the Treasury so close to the edge that Standard & Poor’s downgraded the credit rating of the U.S. government.5,6
The debt ceiling limits the amount that the U.S. Treasury can borrow to meet financial obligations already authorized by Congress. It does not authorize future spending. However, beginning with the bitter battle of 2011, it has been used as leverage for partisan negotiations over government spending. With the White House and the House of Representatives — which must authorize spending — held by different parties, this year’s negotiations could be particularly difficult.
If the debt ceiling is not raised in a timely manner, the U.S. government could default on its financial obligations, resulting in unpaid bills, higher interest rates, and a loss of faith in U.S. government securities that would reverberate throughout the global economy. While it’s unlikely that the current situation will lead to a default, pushing negotiations close to the edge can be damaging in itself. It was estimated that the 2011 impasse cost U.S. taxpayers $1.3 billion in increased borrowing costs in FY 2011 with additional costs in the following years.7
The Deficit and the Debt
Put simply, the federal government runs at a deficit when tax revenues are not sufficient to meet spending obligations. Federal spending has outpaced revenue for the last 50 years, except from 1998 to 2001.8 Annual budget deficits add to the national debt.
The current debt of $31.4 trillion is the highest in U.S. history.9 However, measuring the debt as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) provides a better comparison over time. More specifically, economists look at debt held by the public — funds the government has borrowed to meet operational expenses and liabilities, primarily through issuing Treasury securities. Interagency debt — funds borrowed from government accounts such as the Social Security trust funds — is also subject to the limit but does not directly affect the economy or federal budget.
At the end of fiscal year 2022 (September 30, 2022), debt held by the public was equivalent to 97% of GDP. In 2019, before the pandemic, it was 79% of GDP, and in 2007, before the Great Recession, it was 35%. Both of these crises caused explosions of the deficit and debt due to lower tax revenues and high spending on government stimulus programs. The last time the debt exceeded current levels was at the end of World War II.10,11
In a new February 2023 analysis, the CBO projected that the debt will rise steadily over the next decade to 118% of GDP in 2033, which would be the highest percentage in U.S. history. The driving forces behind this increase would be higher spending on Social Security and Medicare, and rising interest costs (due to increasing debt and higher rates). If current laws remain unchanged, the debt is projected to rise even more quickly in the next two decades, reaching 195% of GDP in 2053.12
No Easy Answer
The only way to change this trajectory is to increase revenue, reduce spending, or both. The rosiest scenario would be decades of high GDP growth that increases revenue at current tax rates, but this seems unlikely. The CBO projects real (inflation-adjusted) GDP growth to average a tepid 1.7% annually over the next decade.13 Raising tax rates may be necessary, but that is always a difficult political option.
There is also little room to maneuver on the spending side. Only 28% of federal spending is “discretionary,” meaning Congress can set amounts through annual appropriations bills, and almost half of that spending goes to national defense, which few leaders would want to cut in the current global climate. The rest is mandatory spending, including Social Security and Medicare (which will account for nearly 36% of federal spending in 2023) and interest on the national debt.14 While both parties have indicated that Social Security and Medicare are off the table, other mandatory spending could be reduced through Congressional action.
The White House released its budget proposal for FY 2024 last week and this will be followed by a counterproposal from House Republicans in April, setting up what is sure to be an intense period of budget negotiations.15 President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy have already begun to discuss the debt ceiling issue, and it remains to be seen whether the ceiling can be addressed outside of the budget process or whether it will be caught in the crosshairs. In either case, the ceiling will have to be raised or suspended in order to maintain U.S. government operations.
1, 3, 10, 12–14) Congressional Budget Office, 2023
2, 6, 9) U.S. Treasury, 2023
4–5) Bipartisan Policy Center, 2023
7) U.S. Government Accountability Office, July 23, 2012
8, 11) U.S. Office of Management and Budget, 2023
15) The White House
Prepared by Broadridge. Edited by BFSG. Copyright 2023.
Disclosure: BFSG does not make any representations or warranties as to the accuracy, timeliness, suitability, completeness, or relevance of any information prepared by any unaffiliated third party, whether linked to BFSG’s website or blog or incorporated herein and takes no responsibility for any such content. All such information is provided solely for convenience purposes only and all users thereof should be guided accordingly. Please remember that different types of investments involve varying degrees of risk, and there can be no assurance that the future performance of any specific investment or investment strategy (including those undertaken or recommended by Company), will be profitable or equal any historical performance level(s). Please see important disclosure information here.
Additional Disclosures: U.S. Treasury securities are guaranteed by the federal government as to the timely payment of principal and interest. The principal value of Treasury securities fluctuates with market conditions. If not held to maturity, they could be worth more or less than the original amount paid. Forecasts are based on current conditions, are subject to change, and may not come to pass.
On September 30, 2021, Congress averted a potential federal government shutdown by passing a last-minute bill to fund government operations through December 3, 2021. Two weeks later, another measure raised the debt ceiling by just enough to sustain federal borrowing until about the same date. Although these bills provided temporary relief, they did not resolve the fundamental issues, and Congress will have to act again by December 3rd.
Spending vs. Borrowing
The budget and the debt ceiling are often considered together by Congress, but they are separate fiscal issues. The budget authorizes future spending, while the debt ceiling is a statutory limit on federal borrowing necessary to fund already authorized spending. Thus, increasing the debt ceiling does not increase government spending. But it does allow borrowing to meet increased spending authorized by Congress.
The underlying fact in this relationship between the budget and the debt ceiling is that the U.S. government runs on a deficit and has done so every year since 2002.1 The U.S. Treasury funds the deficit by borrowing through securities such as Treasury notes, bills, and bonds. When the debt ceiling is reached, the Treasury can no longer issue securities that would put the government above the limit.
Twelve Appropriations Bills
The federal fiscal year begins on October 1, and 12 appropriations bills for various government sectors should be passed by that date to fund activities ranging from defense and national park operations to food safety and salaries for federal employees.2 These appropriations for discretionary spending account for about one-third of federal spending, with the other two-thirds, including Social Security and Medicare, prescribed by law.
Though it would be better for federal agencies to know their operating budgets at the beginning of the fiscal year, the deadline to pass all 12 bills has not been met since fiscal year 1997.3
In order to buy time for further budget negotiations, Congress typically passes a continuing resolution, which extends federal spending to a specific date based on a fixed formula. The September 30th resolution extended spending to December 3 at fiscal year 2021 levels. Adding to the stakes of this year’s budget negotiations, spending caps on discretionary spending that were enacted in 2011 expired on September 30, 2021, so fiscal year 2022 budget levels may become the baseline for future spending.4
Raising the Ceiling
A debt limit was first established in 1917 to facilitate government borrowing during World War I. Since then, the limit has been raised or suspended almost 100 times, often with little or no conflict. However, in recent years, it has become more contentious. In 2011, negotiations came so close to the edge that Standard & Poor’s downgraded the U.S. government credit rating.
A two-year suspension expired on August 1 of this year. At that time, the federal debt was about $28.4 trillion, with large recent increases due to the $3 trillion pandemic stimulus passed with bipartisan support in 2020, as well as the 2021 American Rescue Plan and continuing effects of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.5 The Treasury funded operations after August 1 by employing certain “extraordinary measures” to maintain cash flow. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen projected that these measures would be exhausted by October 18.
The bill signed on October 14 increased the debt ceiling by $480 billion, the amount the Treasury estimated would be necessary to pay government obligations through December 3, again using extraordinary measures. Unlike the budget extension, which is a hard deadline, the debt ceiling date is an estimate, and the Treasury may have a little breathing room.
If the budget appropriations bills — or another continuing resolution — are not passed by December 3, the government will be forced to shut down unfunded operations, with the exception of some essential services. This occurred in fiscal years 2013, 2018, and 2019, with shutdowns lasting 16 days, 3 days, and 35 days, respectively. A Senate report estimated that the three shutdowns cost taxpayers almost $4 billion and nearly 57,000 years of lost production time.6
Although the consequences of a government shutdown would be serious, the economy has bounced back from previous shutdowns. By contrast, a U.S. government default would be unprecedented and could result in unpaid bills, higher interest rates, and a loss of faith in U.S. Treasury securities that would reverberate throughout the global economy. The Federal Reserve has a contingency plan that might mitigate the effects of a short-term default, but Fed Chair Jerome Powell has emphasized that the Fed could not “shield the financial markets, and the economy, and the American people from the consequences of default.”
Given the stakes, it is unlikely that Congress will allow the government to default, but the road to raising the debt ceiling is unclear. The temporary measure was passed through a bipartisan agreement to suspend the Senate filibuster rule, which effectively requires 60 votes to move most legislation forward. However, this was a one-time exception and may not be available again. Another possibility may be to attach a provision to the education, healthcare, and climate package slated to move through a complex budget reconciliation process that allows a bill to bypass the Senate filibuster. However, the reconciliation process is time-consuming, and it is not clear whether the debt ceiling would meet parliamentary requirements.
The budget and the debt ceiling are serious issues, but Congress has always found a way to resolve them in the past. It’s generally wise to maintain a long-term investment strategy based on your goals, time frame, and risk tolerance, rather than overreacting to political conflict and any resulting market volatility.
Prepared by Broadridge Advisor Solutions. Copyright 2021. Edited by BFSG, LLC.
Disclosure: BFSG does not make any representations or warranties as to the accuracy, timeliness, suitability, completeness, or relevance of any information prepared by any unaffiliated third party, whether linked to BFSG’s web site or blog or incorporated herein and takes no responsibility for any such content. All such information is provided solely for convenience purposes only and all users thereof should be guided accordingly. Please see important disclosure information here.