WASHINGTON – The government has maxed out its credit card.
The United States reached its $14.3 trillion limit on federal borrowing Monday, leaving Congress 11 weeks to raise the threshold or risk a financial panic or another recession.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner formally notified Congress that the government would halt its investments in two federal pension plans so it won't exceed the borrowing limit.
Geithner said the government could get by with bookkeeping maneuvers like that through Aug. 2. After that, the government could default on its debt for the first time, threatening the national credit rating and the dollar.
Geithner sent Congress a letter saying he would be unable to make the pension investments in full. He urged Congress to raise the debt limit "in order to protect the full faith and credit of the United States and avoid catastrophic economic consequences for citizens."
Republican leaders in the House have said they won't raise the debt limit unless the Obama administration first agrees to big spending cuts or to steps to lower the debt over the long run.
House Speaker John Boehner repeated the pledge in a statement Monday. The statement did not address Geithner's warning about what would happen if the limit were not raised.
"Americans understand we simply can't keep spending money we don't have," Boehner said. "There will be no debt limit increase without serious budget reforms and significant spending cuts."
Republicans have also ruled out any tax increases, including any plans to end tax cuts for high earners enacted in 2001 and 2003.
"We need to have a vote to lift the debt ceiling because the consequences of not doing so would be quite serious," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters. "And those who suggest otherwise are whistling past the graveyard."
If it doesn't raise the limit, Congress would have to come up with $738 billion to make up for what it planned to borrow through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. The options are drastic: Cut 40 percent of the budget through September, which might mean defaulting on payments to investors in government bonds; raise taxes immediately; or some combination of the two.
"In the economic area, this is the equivalent of nuclear war," says Edward Knight, who was the Treasury Department's general counsel during a standoff over the debt ceiling in the mid-1990s.
Here are some questions and answers about the federal debt limit:
Q: What is the debt ceiling?
A: It's a legal limit on how much debt the government can pile up. The government accumulates debt two ways: It borrows money from investors by issuing Treasury bonds, and it borrows from itself, mostly from Social Security revenue.
In 2010, Congress raised the limit to nearly $14.3 trillion from $12.4 trillion. Three decades ago, the national debt was $908 billion. But Washington spent more than it took in, and the debt rose steadily — surpassing $1 trillion in 1982, then $5 trillion in 1996. It reached $10 trillion in 2008 as the financial crisis and recession dried up tax revenue and as the government spent more on unemployment benefits and other programs.
Congress created the debt limit in 1917. It's unique to the United States. Most countries let their debts rise automatically when government spending outpaces tax revenue. Raising the debt ceiling doesn't usually create much of a stir. Congress has raised it 10 times since 2001.
A refusal to raise the debt ceiling wouldn't mean that Congress had begun to solve the nation's budget problems. It would just mean that lawmakers were refusing to let the government borrow more money to finance programs and tax cuts already approved.
"Having voted to run up the bill, it is utterly irresponsible to prohibit the government from borrowing the money to pay it," writes Howard Gleckman, resident fellow at the Urban Institute.
Q: What is the federal debt, and how does it differ from the deficit?
A: The deficit is how much government spending exceeds tax revenue during a year. The government is expected to run a record $1.5 trillion deficit in the current fiscal year. The debt is the sum of deficits past and present. If Congress raises the limit, the debt will reach $15.5 trillion by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. The huge deficits and debt reflect tax cuts, wars, the Obama administration's stimulus program, higher costs of federal health care programs and the recession, which shrank tax revenue and led the government to spend more on social programs.
Q: What happens now that Treasury has hit its debt limit?
A: It can free up $232 billion by taking what Geithner calls "extraordinary measures." Besides suspending contributions to federal employee pension funds, the government can halt payments to a government fund that buys and sells foreign currencies.
The most serious debt-ceiling showdown was in 1995. At the time, the debt limit was just $4.9 trillion. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin used gimmicks and juggled the government's books to keep government finances afloat for four and a half months before Congress and the Clinton White House reached a deal to end the impasse.
Geithner's Treasury Department won't have as much cushion because the debt is growing much faster than in the mid-1990s. Geithner estimates he'll run out of options Aug. 2.
Q: What would happen if Congress doesn't raise the debt ceiling by Aug. 2 or whenever Treasury exhausts all its short-options?
A: Things would get ugly fast. "When bills became due, we could not pay all of them," says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Budget, a bipartisan group that advocates cutting the debt. "If that happens, you shake up markets as you've never seen before. ... It's inconceivable we would willingly walk ourselves over the cliff."
The government needs to borrow $738 billion to get through the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, according to the Congressional Research Service. Somehow, it would have to close that gap. It could:
— Cut government spending dramatically. To put things in context, $738 billion is equal to 40 percent of the $1.7 trillion that the government is expected to spend in the last six months of the fiscal year. Everything from military salaries to Medicare and Social Security benefits to interest payments on the debt would be vulnerable.
— Come up with $738 billion in new tax revenue, increasing by 66 percent the $1.1 trillion the government is expected to collect in taxes in the second half of the fiscal year.
— Choose a combination of draconian spending cuts and tax increases.
If investors become convinced the U.S. will renege on its debts, they'll sell Treasurys to avoid the risk that the government might not make good on them. That would drive Treasury prices down and push interest rates up, raising the borrowing costs on everything from mortgages to cars. Higher rates would likely slow the economy.
So far, bond investors are taking the threat in stride; the yield on 10-year Treasury notes remains low at 3.17 percent. U.S. Treasurys are still considered perhaps the safest available investment, a haven for investors worldwide.
As Aug. 2 approaches, there's a bigger risk that investors will become nervous.
"It would tell the world that the U.S. can't get its act together, that this is basically a circus," says William Gross, an influential investor who is managing director of the world's biggest bond fund, Pimco. "Investors ultimately won't want to be held hostage by a bunch of clowns."
Q: If the consequences are so dire, why is Congress suggesting it might not raise the limit?
A: As the political divide between Republicans and Democrats has widened, the debt ceiling has emerged as a divisive issue. In recent years, the party that doesn't control the White House has used the issue to whack the party that does.
In 2006, for instance, Senate Democrats voted unanimously against raising the debt limit for President George W. Bush to protest his tax cuts and the invasion of Iraq — a vote that President Barack Obama, then a senator, says he regrets. The situation reversed in 2010: No Senate Republicans supported a higher debt limit for Obama, accusing him of reckless government spending. Congress approved the higher limit anyway because Democrats had a majority in both the House and Senate.
Congress has always ended up raising the debt ceiling before a financial crackup.
Republicans, many of them elected in November on a pledge to slash spending, are betting that the debt-ceiling deadline offers leverage to demand deep budget cuts from the Obama administration.
Obama wants to narrow the federal gaps and reduce debts, in part by reducing spending, in part by ending tax cuts for higher-income Americans enacted under President George W. Bush. But Republican lawmakers say they refuse to consider tax hikes.
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