Everything You Need to Know About the Debt Ceiling

In 39 slides.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listens as President Barack Obama speaks to media in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Sept. 3, 2013.
National Journal
Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
Sept. 26, 2013, 6:29 a.m.

The debt ceil­ing is a ter­ri­fy­ing, con­fus­ing, amorph­ous mon­ster. But there’s a slide show that can at least give you everything you need to know about it.

We’re not even totally in the clear on a shut­down over fund­ing the gov­ern­ment, but Con­gress is already onto the next fisc­al crisis. Treas­ury Sec­ret­ary Jac­ob Lew sent a let­ter to Con­gress on Wed­nes­day say­ing that if Con­gress doesn’t act to raise the debt ceil­ing, the gov­ern­ment will be left with just $30 bil­lion in cash. “If we have in­suf­fi­cient cash on hand,” Lew wrote, “it would be im­possible for the United States of Amer­ica to meet all of its ob­lig­a­tions for the first time in our his­tory.”

This is something to be le­git­im­ately frightened about. House Re­pub­lic­ans, while they look as if they are get­ting ready to re­treat on the budget fight, are gear­ing up to go very, very hard on the debt lim­it. It’s im­possible for con­gres­sion­al lead­er­ship to say how this will end, much less your humble me­dia pro­gnost­ic­at­or.

But how ex­actly did we get here? And what ex­actly could we be look­ing at? The Bi­par­tis­an Policy Cen­ter has put to­geth­er a slide show with lit­er­ally any­thing you could pos­sibly want to know about the mech­an­ics of the debt lim­it, how the gov­ern­ment has been able to hold off on “ex­traordin­ary meas­ures” for this long, and why Oc­to­ber could be a fisc­al apo­ca­lypse.

The cen­ter, even after Lew’s let­ter, is pre­dict­ing that the U.S. gov­ern­ment will no longer be able to meet its fin­an­cial ob­lig­a­tions between Oc­to­ber 18 and Novem­ber 5. Here’s why.

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