What Happens If Congress Does Not Raise the Debt Ceiling

What Happens If Congress Does Not Raise the Debt Ceiling
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The debt limit—commonly called the debt ceiling—is the maximum amount of debt that the Department of the Treasury can issue to the public or to other federal agencies. The amount is set by law and has been increased or suspended over the years to allow for the additional borrowing needed to finance the government’s operations. On December 16, 2021, lawmakers raised the debt limit by $2.5 trillion to a total of $31.4 trillion.1 On January 19, 2023, that limit was reached, and the Treasury announced a “debt issuance suspension period” and began using well-established “extraordinary measures” to borrow additional funds without breaching the debt ceiling.

The Congressional Budget Office projects that if the debt limit remains unchanged, there is a significant risk that at some point in the first two weeks of June, the government will no longer be able to pay all of its obligations. The extent to which the Treasury will be able to fund the government’s ongoing operations will remain uncertain throughout May, even if the Treasury ultimately runs out of funds in early June. That uncertainty exists because the timing and amount of revenue collections and outlays over the intervening weeks could differ from CBO’s projections.

If the debt limit is not raised or suspended before the Treasury’s cash and extraordinary measures are exhausted, the government will have to delay making payments for some activities, default on its debt obligations, or both.2 If the Treasury’s cash and extraordinary measures are sufficient to finance the government until June 15, expected quarterly tax receipts and additional extraordinary measures will probably allow the government to continue financing operations through at least the end of July.

What Is the Schedule for Cash Flows and Debt Issuance?

Over the coming weeks and months, the size and timing of governmental cash flows and of transactions between the Treasury and other parts of the government will determine when the extraordinary measures would be exhausted.8

Certain large flows of cash into and out of the Treasury follow a regular schedule that directly affects the amount of debt subject to limit. The following are typical payment amounts and dates for large government expenditures. (The actual date of a disbursement may shift by a day or two in either direction if a payment date falls on a weekend or federal holiday.)

  • A large share of the pay or benefits for active-duty members of the military, civil service and military retirees, veterans, and recipients of Supplementary Security Income (about $25 billion) is disbursed on the first day of the month.
  • Interest payments are made around the 15th day and on the last day of each month. Mid-month outlays are typically only $3 billion, but once per quarter, payments of interest on 10-year notes and on bonds (which will next be paid in May) increase mid-month outlays to roughly $50 billion. End-of-month payments have ranged from $10 billion to $16 billion over the past six months.

Some repeating large disbursements—for example, payments to Social Security recipients and benefits covered under Medicare Part A—are financed by trust funds. Other large disbursements that may be irregular in amount and timing, such as outlays for bank resolutions supported by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, are also financed by dedicated funds. In each case, the Treasury obtains cash to make those payments by borrowing from the public, but the disbursements reduce the funds’ balances, which are held in the form of Treasury securities. Because of that reduction in intragovernmental debt, those payments have little net effect on the total amount of debt subject to limit.

Deposits into the Treasury (mostly in the form of tax revenues) are relatively steady throughout most months. The exceptions are a few dates on which tax receipts are particularly large and during tax-filing season, when most refunds are paid following the processing of the previous year’s tax returns. Corporate income taxes are paid quarterly and, for most corporations, are next due on June 15, 2023. Also on that day, the second of four estimated payments for individual income taxes are due.

What Are the Government’s Financing Needs Through September 2023?

Taking into account a shortfall in revenues, CBO estimates that the government will probably need resources totaling between $1.9 trillion and $2.2 trillion to finance ongoing operations for all of fiscal year 2023.9 Through April, $1.1 trillion in resources (a combination of increased debt, extraordinary measures, and cash drawn down) have been used. CBO estimates that cash and extraordinary measures available for the rest of the fiscal year will total $0.5 trillion, about two-thirds of which is currently available. Thus, the gap between resources needed through the end of September and those available before then will probably be between $0.3 trillion and $0.6 trillion, CBO estimates.

The month of May typically accounts for between 10 percent and 15 percent of the government’s financing needs in a fiscal year. Financing needs for this month, if they amounted to such a percentage, would, by CBO’s estimate, equate to roughly $200 billion to $300 billion. June, by contrast, typically accounts for only 4 percent to 5 percent of the full year’s financing needs, but those needs—equating to roughly $75 billion to $100 billion this year—are concentrated in the first half of the month, before the quarterly tax collections are received in the middle of the month.

Because the financing needs in May and early June could exceed the cash and extraordinary measures available to the Treasury during that period—about $360 billion in total resources, by CBO’s estimate—there is a significant risk that the Treasury will exhaust all of its resources before June 15. In addition, CBO expects that the Treasury would be unable to make required payments before its cash balance and extraordinary measures were fully depleted: The Treasury has indicated that daily cash flows are highly variable and that having a low cash balance would introduce new risks in managing cash, extraordinary measures, and the balance between those two resources.10

If the government’s financing needs totaled less than $300 billion before June 15, when tax payments are due, the Treasury would be able to continue financing government operations through at least the end of July, CBO estimates. How long the Treasury could continue to make all payments thereafter would depend in part on the size of those tax collections.

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