Interactive: Recent History of the Debt Limit
The statutory debt limit has been the subject of much attention over the past few years. As the federal government operates at a deficit, spending more money than it collects in revenue, the cost of these deficits are added to a growing national debt. The federal debt limit restricts the Treasury Department’s ability to issue debt to pay for bills incurred by previous legislation (as opposed to limiting the ability of lawmakers to incur more debt via their spending and revenue decisions).
Once the debt limit is reached, the Treasury Department can use special maneuvers called extraordinary measures to continue to finance the government for a limited period of time. At some point, if Congress and the president cannot agree to increase or suspend the debt limit, Treasury would have to rely on incoming revenue only to make payments, and eventually would be unable to make all payments owed in full and on time. This would be considered a default on federal obligations.
In 2011, Congress passed the Budget Control Act, which raised the debt limit and established various limitations on federal spending. Beginning in 2013, Congress has taken to temporarily suspending the debt limit, rather than raising it directly. The debt limit has now been suspended on five occasions, most recently as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which suspends the debt limit through March 1, 2019. When that suspension expires, the debt limit will be reinstated at a new, higher level.
The interactive below shows how the debt limit has changed since 2010. You can mouse over each period to learn more about the recent history of the debt limit.