CBO projects that if the debt limit is not raised, the Treasury would probably run out of cash and be unable to make its usual payments starting sometime in the first quarter of the next fiscal year, most likely in October or November.
The debt limit—commonly called the debt ceiling—is the maximum amount of debt that the Department of the Treasury can issue to the public or to other federal agencies. The amount is set by law and has been increased over the years to finance the government's operations. Currently, there is no statutory limit on the issuance of new federal debt because the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 (Public Law 116-37), enacted in August 2019, suspended the limit through July 31, 2021. On August 1, 2021, the debt limit will be reset to the previous ceiling of $22.0 trillion, plus the cumulative borrowing that occurred during the period of suspension. Unless additional legislation either extends the suspension or increases the limit, existing statutes will allow the Treasury to declare a "debt issuance suspension period" and to take "extraordinary measures" to borrow additional funds for a period of time without breaching the debt ceiling.
The Treasury's cash balance and those extraordinary measures would enable it to continue financing the government's activities for a while. However, if the debt limit remained unchanged, the ability to borrow using those measures would ultimately be exhausted, and the Treasury would probably run out of cash sometime in the first quarter of the next fiscal year (which begins on October 1, 2021), most likely in October or November, the Congressional Budget Office estimates. If that occurred, the government would be unable to pay its obligations fully, and it would delay making payments for its activities, default on its debt obligations, or both.
The timing and size of revenue collections and outlays over the coming months could differ noticeably from CBO's projections. Therefore, the extraordinary measures could be exhausted, and the Treasury could run out of cash, either earlier or later than CBO projects.