Near the end of the Treasury Department’s Quarterly Refunding Statement, issued on Wednesday, October 31, Assistant Secretary Matthew Rutherford included the following ominous paragraph:
Treasury continues to expect the debt limit to be reached near the end of 2012. However, Treasury has the authority to take certain extraordinary measures to give Congress more time to act to ensure we are able to meet the legal obligations of the United States of America. We continue to expect that these extraordinary measures would provide sufficient “headroom” under the debt limit to allow the government to continue to meet its obligations until early in 2013.
These are the words that triggered the debt ceiling crisis in the summer of 2011 when recalcitrant House members, honoring their Taxpayer Protection Pledge, drew a line in the sand and threatened a shutdown of the government unless the White House caved in and permitted spending cuts in the future in exchange for an immediate raise in the ceiling. Those “spending cuts in the future” are part of the “fiscal cliff” facing the lame-duck Congress following the election on Tuesday.
Since the Budget Control Act of 2011 was signed into law, the debt ceiling has been incrementally raised to its current level, $16.4 trillion. With October’s deficit of $195 billion pushing the national debt to $16.2 trillion, the clock is ticking on the inevitable limit being reached well before the end of the year.
As noted by Rutherford,
The debt limit places a limitation on the total amount of money that the United States government is authorized to borrow to meet its existing legal obligations, including Social Security and Medicare benefits, military salaries, interest on the national debt, tax refunds, and other payments.
The debt limit does not authorize new spending commitments. It simply allows the government to finance existing legal obligations that Congresses and presidents of both parties have made in the past.
Unless the House of Representatives votes to raise the ceiling, the government will be unable to sell new Treasury securities to fund Congress’ spending.
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