Federal Debt and the Statutory Limit, October 2015
If the debt limit remains unchanged, CBO projects, the Treasury’s cash balance will be entirely depleted sometime in the first half of November, at which time the government would be unable to fully pay its obligations.
The debt limit—commonly referred to as the debt ceiling—is the maximum amount of debt that the Department of the Treasury can issue to the public and to other federal agencies. That amount is set by law and has been increased over the years in order to finance the government’s operations. In March, the debt ceiling was reached, and the Secretary of the Treasury announced a “debt issuance suspension period.” During such a period, existing statutes allow the Treasury to take a number of “extraordinary measures” to borrow additional funds without breaching the debt ceiling. CBO projects that if the debt limit remains unchanged, the Treasury will begin running a very low cash balance in early November, and the extraordinary measures will be exhausted and the cash balance entirely depleted sometime during the first half of November. At such time, the government would be unable to fully pay its obligations, a development that would lead to delays of payments for government activities, a default on the government’s debt obligations, or both.
CBO previously projected that those developments would occur between mid-November and early December. The agency revised the date primarily because the Treasury’s cash balance at the beginning of October was smaller than expected, the result of a larger-than-expected deficit and other variations in cash flows.