The Debt Ceiling - The Fiscal Cliff
Under Article I Section 8 of the United States Constitution, Congress has the sole power to borrow money on the credit of the United States. From the founding of the United States until 1917 Congress directly authorized each individual debt issuance separately. In order to provide more flexibility to finance the United States' involvement in World War I, Congress modified the method by which it authorizes debt in the Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917. Under this act Congress established an aggregate limit, or "ceiling," on the total amount of bonds that could be issued.
The current debt ceiling, in which an aggregate limit is applied to nearly all federal debt, was substantially established by Public Debt Acts passed in 1939 and 1941. The Treasury is authorized to issue debt needed to fund government operations (as authorized by each federal budget) up to a stated debt ceiling, with some small exceptions.
The process of setting the debt ceiling is separate and distinct from the regular process of financing government operations, and raising the debt ceiling does not have any direct impact on the budget deficit. The U.S. government proposes a federal budget every year, which must be approved by Congress. This budget details projected tax collections and outlays and, if there is a budget deficit, the amount of borrowing the government would have to do in that fiscal year. A vote to increase the debt ceiling is, therefore, usually treated as a formality, needed to continue spending that has already been approved previously by the Congress and the President. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) explains: "The debt limit does not control or limit the ability of the federal government to run deficits or incur obligations. Rather, it is a limit on the ability to pay obligations already incurred." The apparent redundancy of the debt ceiling has led to suggestions that it should be abolished altogether.
Since 1979, the House of Representatives passed a rule to automatically raise the debt ceiling when passing a budget, without the need for a separate vote on the debt ceiling, except when the House votes to waive or repeal this rule. The exception to the rule was invoked in 1995, which resulted in two government shutdowns.
When the debt ceiling is reached, Treasury can declare a debt issuance suspension period and utilize "extraordinary measures" to acquire funds to meet federal obligations but which do not require the issue of new debt. Treasury first used these measures on December 16, 2009, to remain within the debt ceiling, and avoid a government shutdown, and also used it during the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011. However, there are limits to how much can be raised by these measures.
The debt ceiling was increased on February 12, 2010, to $14.294 trillion. On April 15, 2011, Congress finally passed the 2011 United States federal budget, authorizing federal government spending for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, which ends on September 30, 2011, with a deficit of $1.48 trillion, without voting to increase the debt ceiling. The two Houses of Congress were unable to agree on a revision of the debt ceiling in mid-2011, resulting in the United States debt-ceiling crisis. The impasse was resolved with the passing on August 2, 2011, the deadline for a default by the U.S. government on its debt, of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which immediately increased the debt ceiling to $14.694 trillion, required a vote on a Balanced Budget Amendment, and established several complex mechanisms to further increase the debt ceiling and reduce federal spending.
On September 8, 2011, one of the complex mechanisms to further increase the debt ceiling took place as the Senate defeated a resolution to block a $500 billion automatic increase. The Senate's action allowed the debt ceiling to increase to $15.194 trillion, as agreed upon in the Budget Control Act. This was the third increase in the debt ceiling in 19 months, the fifth increase since President Obama took office, and the twelfth increase in 10 years. The August 2 Act also created the United States Congress Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction for the purpose of developing a set of proposals by November 23, 2011, to reduce federal spending by $1.2 trillion. The Act requires both houses of Congress to convene an "up-or-down" vote on the proposals as a whole by December 23, 2011. The Joint Select Committee met for the first time on September 8, 2011.
The debt ceiling was raised once more on January 30, 2012, to a new high of $16.394 trillion.
At midnight on Dec. 31, 2012, a major provision of the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) is scheduled to go into effect. The crucial part of the Act provided for a Joint Select Committee of Congressional Democrats and Republicans — the so-called 'Supercommittee '— to produce bipartisan legislation by late November 2012 that would decrease the U.S. deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years. To do so, the committee agreed to implement by law — if no other deal was reached before Dec. 31 — massive government spending cuts as well as tax increases or a return to tax levels from previous years. These are the elements that make up the 'fiscal cliff.'
Source for the above: Wikipedia
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