The US Debt Ceiling – Everything You Need to Know

It is the statutory maximum on the total amount of national debt that the U.S Treasury may acquire

Himanshu Singh

Reviewed by

Himanshu Singh

Expertise: Investment Banking | Private Equity


September 13, 2022

The United States debt ceiling, sometimes known as the debt limit, is a statutory maximum on the total national debt the U.S. Treasury may acquire.

As a result, it restricts the amount of money the federal government may pay as interest on the debt it has already borrowed. 

The total debt, which comprises debt held by the general public and debt owned in internal government accounts, is subject to the debt ceiling. However, the ceiling does not cover about 0.5% of the debt. 

It does not directly control government deficits because spending is permitted by separate legislation. 

In practice, it can only prevent the Treasury from covering costs and other debts previously budgeted for and appropriated but were incurred after the limit was reached.

The Treasury will need to take "exceptional measures" if the debt ceiling is reached without a cap increase to temporarily pay government commitments and expenditures until a solution can be found. 

Even though it appeared on a few occasions that Congress might permit a default, the Treasury has never reached the point of exhausting extraordinary measures and entering default. 

If this were to happen, it's uncertain whether the Treasury would be able to arrange debt repayments in such a way as to avoid defaulting on its bond obligations. Still, at the very least, it would have to stop making some of its non-bond payment commitments.

Let us now define what debt is, in general.

Debt Overview

Debt is an obligation to pay money or another agreement value to a third party, the creditor. Debt differs from an immediate purchase in that payments are deferred or made in installments. 

A sovereign state, nation, local government, business, or individual may be liable for the debt.


A person, corporation, organization, or government that owes money to another entity is said to be in debt. When you borrow money, you usually agree with the lender to pay back the money on a set schedule, possibly with interest or a fee. 

Credit cards, as well as loans for cars, students, and homes, are the main forms of debt that most people are familiar with.

Good Debt vs. Bad Debt

Even though all debt has a cost, you can generally categorize any borrowed funds as either good debt or bad debt, depending on how they affect your finances and your way of life. 

You can enhance your income or accumulate wealth by taking on good debt. However, bad debt doesn't give any advantages or a return on your investment.

Mortgages and student loans are typical instances of good debt because they can boost your earning capacity and help you accumulate wealth.

Credit cards and personal lines of credit are typically categorized as bad debt. This is because they frequently have interest rates that are significantly higher than those on mortgages and student loans and may not yield a return on investment.

Types of Debt 

In a financial agreement based on debt, the borrowing party is granted permission to borrow funds subject to the requirement that they are repaid later, typically with interest.


1. Individuals

Mortgage loans, vehicle loans, credit card debt, and back taxes are common debts people and households owe. Debt is a way for people to spend future earnings and purchasing power before earning it. 

People in industrialized countries frequently use consumer debt to buy homes, vehicles, and other items that are too expensive to afford with cash.

If people use credit cards instead of cash to purchase goods and services, they are more likely to overspend and become into debt. This is mostly due to two effects:

  1. The pain of paying: The unpleasant feelings felt upon paying for a good or service
  2. Transparency effect: The pain of paying is reduced the further removed the payment method is from cash, i.e., it feels better to pay with a card, for example, than cash. This is because it feels less like you're spending money when you tap a piece of plastic than handing over cash. 

2. Businesses

  • Term Loan: This is an agreement to lend a specific sum of money, known as the primary sum or principal, for a particular amount of time, with the repayment of this sum due on a specific date.
  • A revenue-based finance loan: These have a set repayment goal accomplished over several years. The repayment amount for this kind of loan is typically 1.5 to 2.5 times the principal loan.
  • Syndicated loan: Companies that want to borrow more money than any one lender is willing to risk in a single loan are given a syndicated loan. Currencies

Several lenders provide a syndicated loan, and one or more commercial banks or investment banks, known as arrangers, organize, arrange, and manage the loan.

  • Letter of credit: In substantial international commerce transactions involving agreements between a supplier in one country and a buyer in another, letters of credit are typically employed.
  • Bonds: The money must be fully repaid after the bond's life. Throughout the bond's life, interest may be added to the final payment or paid in periodic payments (referred to as coupons).

3. Governments

Governments issue debt to fund both significant capital projects and regular expenses. Local governments, also referred to as municipalities and sovereign states, may issue public debt.

Treasury bills, or debt issued by the U.S. government, are the standard by which all other debt is measured. Broad, reputable, liquid, and open capital markets for Treasury bills exist.

Types of Loans  

The simplest definition of debt is when someone borrows money and promises to pay it back. Student loans, mortgages, and credit card transactions are typical examples.

1. Secured Debt 

If you don't pay your loan as agreed, the lender has the authority to take particular collateral. Mortgage loans, auto loans, and secured credit cards are examples of common secured debts.

The lender has the authority to seize the property and sell it to recoup the loan after a predetermined period of missed payments. After this process, you can still owe money if the sales earnings aren't enough to pay off the remaining loan sum.

2. Unsecured Debt

On the other hand, unsecured debt has no collateral and does not automatically grant creditors the ability to seize your property if you default on the loan. 

Unsecured debt includes credit card debt, school loans, medical debt, and payday loans.

If you don't pay an unsecured debt, creditors frequently sell delinquent debts to a third-party collection agency rather than seizing your property. 

To collect a payment, debt collectors may phone you, send you letters, or record the debt on your credit report. If such measures fail, the debt collector may sue you and request a wage garnishment order from the court.

Revolving vs. Installment Debt

Both installment loans and revolving credit are necessary to maintain a healthy credit score, although revolving credit typically matters more than the other.

  • Revolving or installment payments are the two main types of debt repayment. Revolving debt is not subject to a set repayment schedule. 
  • You can access a credit line if you pay the minimum amount due each month against any outstanding balance. For instance, using a credit card is a typical method of accessing revolving debt.
  • In contrast, installment debt has a predetermined loan amount and a specified repayment period. A personal loan is an illustration of an installment loan: You repay it over a predetermined period, typically months or years, and your monthly payments are typically the same.

According to Droske (who has a perfect credit score), "Credit ratings predict future behavior. Thus, the scoring models look for indicators of your good and bad history."

What is the debt limit?

The debt limit is a cap that Congress has set on how much debt the federal government of the United States of America can have outstanding. Since August 1st, 2021, this limit has been set at $28.4 trillion.

It's also critical to remember that the ceiling is not a budgeting instrument that looks forward and reflects what decision-makers believe to be the ideal amounts of spending and revenue. 

Ninety-seven percent of the current national debt is the result of political decisions made before the Biden Administration took office in January 2021. Moreover, these are decisions that the parties, either independently or bipartisanly, agreed to. 

The ceiling reflects the spending and revenue decisions discussed and implemented in prior years by prior Congresses and Administrations.

The ceiling determines how much money the U.S. Treasury can borrow to cover the debts accrued due to previous policy choices.

What happens if the U.S. government reaches its debt ceiling?

Once it has been reached and all extraordinary measures have been used, the government will no longer be permitted to issue debt and will soon run out of cash.

Incoming receipts would not be enough at that point to cover millions of daily commitments as they become due to annual deficits. 

As a result, the federal government will have to, at least temporarily, fail on some of its obligations, including Social Security payments, military and civilian federal employee salaries, benefits for veterans, and utility payments, among others.

A default or even the perception of one could have detrimental effects on the economy

Since both the domestic and the foreign markets depend on the relative economic and political stability of U.S. debt instruments and the U.S. economy, a default would rock the financial markets of the world and cause chaos.

The debt ceiling and deficit

Although the causality has shifted in both directions, the most significant deficit reduction agreements reached since 1980 have been accompanied by an increase in the debt cap.

The debt limit has occasionally been successfully utilized to encourage deficit reduction. Increases in the ceiling have also been incorporated into deficit reduction plans by Congress.

For instance, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 and the 2011 Budget Control Act were passed concurrently with an increase in the nation's borrowing limit.

Lawmakers have typically accepted temporary increases in the debt limit to allow discussions to be finished without the risk of default. In nearly all cases where the debt limit increased, it was either accompanied by deficit reduction measures or included in a deficit-reduction package.

Additional information on the clauses linked to ceiling legislation, including bills from 1993, 1997, 2013, 2015, 2018, and 2019, is provided in the Appendix.

What are the possibilities of raising the debt ceiling?

Continued federal budget deficits, government borrowing from the Social Security Trust Fund, consistent Treasury lending from other nations, low-interest rates that encourage increased investment, raised ceilings, and steady Treasury lending all contribute to the U.S.' high national debt.

Federal legislation to raise the debt ceiling is regular and frequently difficult. While certain increases have been utilized to implement fiscal changes, many increases are not always related to the economy's finances.

Some changes could be: 

  • Tying adjustments to the debt ceiling to accomplish reasonable fiscal goals, such that Congress wouldn't need to raise it if goals are fulfilled.
  • Debating it while Congress decides on revenue and spending levels instead of after those choices have been made.
  • Expanding it to include additional economically significant metrics, including debt held by the general public or debt as a percentage of GDP.
  • Limiting upcoming commitments to maintain the debt ceiling.

Examples of previous debt ceiling issuance 

The national debt ceiling is an upper limit imposed by a statute or the constitution on the total amount of outstanding public debt held by a nation, state, or municipality, typically represented as an absolute amount.

1. Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019

This legislation automatically "caught up" to account for borrowing up to that point and suspended the ceiling until July 31st, 2021. As a result, it will effectively increase by $6.5 trillion, reaching the predicted figure of about $28.5 trillion. 

The law also increased expenditure limitations for 2020 and 2021 by nearly $320 billion for defense and nondefense discretionary spending. 

Only a portion of the measure's costs was offset. After considering longer-term increases in baseline discretionary expenditure levels brought on by the bill, it will ultimately add $1.7 trillion to the national debt over ten years.

2. Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018

Using an automated "catch up" to account for borrowing up to that point, this bill delayed the ceiling through March 1st, 2019, raising it by $1.5 trillion to its anticipated level of roughly $22 trillion.

Additionally, the measure increased the statutory ceilings for discretionary expenditure on defense and nondefense in 2018 and 2019 above the 2011 ceilings. 

Little of the cost of the bill was offset; if rising interest payments are taken into account, it will eventually add $418 billion to the debt after ten years.

3. Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015

This legislation effectively raised the debt ceiling by $1.8 trillion to $19.8 trillion by suspending the debt ceiling through March 15th, 2017, and providing an automatic "catch up" to account for borrowing up to that date.

Aside from providing "sequester relief," the bill also avoided the Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund's insolvency by reallocating payroll tax revenues and raising the statutory caps on defense and nondefense discretionary spending for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. 

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Researched and authored by Charbel Yammine | LinkedIn

Reviewed and edited by James Fazeli-Sinaki | LinkedIn

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