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CRS — Legislative Procedures for Adjusting the Public Debt Limit: A Brief Overview

December 5, 2012

Legislative Procedures for Adjusting the Public Debt Limit: A Brief Overview (PDF)

Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

Almost all borrowing by the federal government is conducted by the Treasury Department, within the restrictions established by a single, statutory limit on the total amount of debt that may be outstanding at any time. Most adju stments to the debt limit have been increases, but sometimes the change has been a reduction.

The annual budget resolution is required to include appropriate levels of the public debt for each fiscal year covered by the resolution. In some years, the budget resolution includes amounts of the public debt specifically subject to limit or amounts by which the public debt subject to limit is recommended to be changed. Because a budget resolution does not become law, Congress and the President must enact legislation to implement budget resolution policies. Under current legislative procedures, the House and Senate may develop and consider legislation adjusting the debt limit in one of two ways: (1) under regular legislative procedures in both chambers, either as freestanding legislation or as a part of a measure dealing with other topics; or (2) as part of the budget reconciliation process provided for under the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. The House also has initiated debt limit legislation under its former House Rule XXVIII (the so-called “Gephardt rule”); the House repealed the rule at the beginning of the 112 th Congress.

During the period from 1940 to the present, Congress and the President have enacted a total of 92 measures adjusting the public debt limit—73 under regular legislative procedures in both chambers, 15 under the Gephardt rule, and 4 under reconciliation procedures.

On August 2, 2011, President Barack Obama signed into law the most recent measure adjusting the public debt limit, as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011 (P.L. 112-25). The act established special procedures for congressional disapproval of the increases to the debt limit authorized by the act. The act authorized increases to the debt limit by at least $2.1 trillion (and up to $2.4 trillion), in three installments: (1) an initial increase of $400 billion; (2) an additional increase of $500 billion; and (3) an additional increase of an amount between $1.2 trillion and $1.5 trillion, depending on certain subsequent actions. Although the initial increase in the debt limit of $400 billion was effective immediately and not subject to congressional disapproval, the subsequent additional increases were subject to congressional disapproval. In both cases, Congress did not enact a disapproval resolution. Therefore, the debt limit was increased by the additional amounts of $500 billion and $1.2 trillion, as provided by the act.

This report will be updated as developments warrant.

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