The Debt Ceiling: Explained (and Quickly)

The wonky economic fight boils down to this: How much are poor people gonna have to pay to spring the White House from the GOP's latest trap?

By Shani O. Hilton May 20, 2011

With conversations about the nation’s economic state turning away from jobs and toward deficits and debt, this might be a good time to explain a term that’s getting thrown around a lot: The "debt ceiling."

What the debt ceiling is:

The debt ceiling is a limit that Congress has put on how much money the government can owe to its own agencies, other countries, and individuals. Right now, the limit–which was hit a few days ago–is $14.294 trillion.

Why we’re talking about it:

The debt limit was last raised in early 2010 (President Obama, incidentally, says he regrets voting against raising it as a senator in 2006), and the government hit that new limit on Monday. According to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, consequences for not raising the ceiling include: defaulting on debt payments, which would lead to a necessary government spending freeze, which Geithner says could in turn lead to a "double-dip recession."

The problem is, while this all sounds terrible, there are opponents to the Obama administration who insist that defaulting won’t be as bad as it seems. They want to see still more spending cuts in return for voting to raise the ceiling. As former George W. Bush economic policy adviser Keith Hennessey writes, "Congressional Republicans are excited to use a needed debt limit increase bill as leverage to get additional spending cuts or budget process reforms, as they did with the FY11 appropriations bill."

Luckily for us, the Treasury can keep the government afloat for the next few months using different "tricks" to juggle the debt. Raising the debt ceiling seems inevitable, but the question remains what Obama will give up for it–or, more precisely, what the states, localities and individuals who are most in need of federal help to stay afloat in a still crippled economy will loose.

What’s going to happen

Sooner or later–preferably sooner, but probably later–Congress will have to strike a deal to raise the debt ceiling. In the meantime, we’ll be subjected to a lot of the same arguments we saw when Democrats and Republicans were trying to agree on the FY 2011 budget.