Federal Debt and the Statutory Limit, February 2023
CBO projects that, if the debt limit is not raised or suspended, the government’s ability to issue additional debt—other than to replace maturing securities—will be exhausted between July and September 2023.
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 or suspended over the years to allow for the additional borrowing needed to finance the government’s operations. On December 16, 2021, lawmakers raised the debt limit by $2.5 trillion to a total of $31.4 trillion. On January 19, 2023, that limit was reached, and the Treasury announced a “debt issuance suspension period” during which, under current law, it can take well-established “extraordinary measures” to borrow additional funds without breaching the debt ceiling.
The Congressional Budget Office projects that, if the debt limit remains unchanged, the government’s ability to borrow using extraordinary measures will be exhausted between July and September 2023—that is, in the fourth quarter of the current fiscal year. The projected exhaustion date is uncertain because the timing and amount of revenue collections and outlays over the intervening months could differ from CBO’s projections. In particular, income tax receipts in April could be more or less than CBO estimates. If those receipts fell short of estimated amounts—for example, if capital gains realizations in 2022 were smaller or if U.S. income growth slowed by more in early calendar year 2023 than CBO projected—the extraordinary measures could be exhausted sooner, and the Treasury could run out of funds before July.
If the debt limit is not raised or suspended before the extraordinary measures are exhausted, the government would be unable to pay its obligations fully. As a result, the government would have to delay making payments for some activities, default on its debt obligations, or both.