Oct 7, 2021 - Politics & Policy

By the numbers: Debt ceiling history

Congress made its first moves Wednesday toward raising or suspending the debt ceiling, as the country faced the prospect of defaulting on its obligations in less than two weeks.

Why it matters: Although it's not the first time Congress has waited until the last minute to deal with the federal debt ceiling, the U.S. has never defaulted. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recently said defaulting would likely trigger a recession.

By the numbers: The debt ceiling was enacted in 1917, at $11.5 billion, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. A debt limit covering nearly all government debt was created in 1939, set at $45 billion.

  • Congress has raised the debt ceiling from $4.37 trillion in spring of 1993, to $28.4 trillion as of Aug. 1, 2021. The latest number was based on the current debt when the last suspension ended on July 31.
  • The ceiling has been suspended seven times since February 2013.

Between the lines: Since the debt limit was set on Aug. 1, Yellen has used her authorities as Treasury secretary to take "extraordinary measures" to avoid defaulting on debt — including stopping certain investments.

  • Those efforts are expected to be exhausted by Oct. 18.
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