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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, as part of an agreement to increase the debt limit in three stages, Congress passed the Budget Control Act, which established various limitations on federal spending. Beginning in 2013, instead of outright increases, Congress has temporarily suspended the debt limit three times; upon reinstatement, the debt limit has been reset at a new, higher level. The recent suspension expired on March 15, 2017, and the debt limit was back in effect the following day. 

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.