Current Events: The Debt Ceiling

Article I of the U.S. Constitution is said to give the “power of the purse” to the U.S. Congress. Article I, Section 7, Clause 1 states, “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with amends as on other Bills.” Article I, Section 9, Clause 7 also demonstrates these powers by establishing, “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.” Since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the appropriation of federal money and the issuance of national debt has be under the purview of the legislative branch of the government. For the earlier years of the nation, these appropriations and debts were handled with relative ease by the Congress, but things changed in the early 1900’s.

In 1917, with World War 1 consuming most of the globe, the price tag for the United States’ involvement was up in the air. Congress passed the First Liberty Loan Act of 1917, and in doing so, they set a $5 billion limit on new issues of bonds, and issued $2 billion in one-year certificates of indebtedness to pay for the war efforts. Almost immediately, Congress realized that another law would be necessary to address the costs associated with the war, and so the Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917 was passed. This second bill raised the general limit on borrowing and afforded the Treasury Secretary in the Executive Branch the ability to determine the proper mix of securities to issue, while limiting congressional oversight; for the first time, the Executive Branch was empowered to issue debts in such an unfettered way.  On the eve of the second World War,  Congress acted dramatically once again. In 1939 Congress set one aggregate debt limit, consolidating the restrictions around specific debt forms, and set the federal debt limit at $45 billion. At the same time, Congress gave the Treasury Department wide discretion over which borrowing instruments they were able to use, as long as the total debt did not exceed the set level, known as the debt ceiling.

Since its creation, the debt ceiling has been raised nearly 100 times, and currently stands in excess of $31 trillion. This routine raising of the debt ceiling happens because the U.S. government regularly spends more than it collects in revenue. With consistent shortfalls in revenue, the government then borrows money by issuing government securities or bonds. If the U.S. hits its debt ceiling, fails to raise it, and consequently does not meet its interest payments to bondholders, the country would  be in default. Defaulting on issued debts has not happened during the history of the debt ceiling. Economists caution that such a default would lower the U.S.’s national credit rating, something that already happened in 2011 after a fierce debt ceiling debate within the federal government.  Lowering the country’s national credit could lead to increased costs to preexisting debts, and create ripple effects in the overall global economy. On January 19, 2023, according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the U.S. hit its debt limit and would initiate “extraordinary measures” to avoid default.

This week’s Current Events resources examine the history and effects of the federal debt ceiling. The resources shared provide information and context regarding the formation of the debt ceiling, as well as how it effects policy at the national level, and what a default may mean for everyday Americans, as well as the global economy.


Essential Questions, Vocabulary & Extend the Resources:

  • What is the debt ceiling?
  • How does the debt ceiling affect the U.S. federal government? How does the debt ceiling affect the average U.S. person?
  • Where does the U.S. Treasury Department receive its legal authority to issue debt for the U.S. government? How did that authorization come to be?
  • What roles does the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution play in the conversation and controversies surrounding the debt ceiling?
  • What are possible consequences if the U.S. defaults on its fiscal obligations?
  • In your opinion, should the executive branch of the U.S. government continue to borrow money in excess of the debt ceiling to avoid default?
  • In your opinion, is the debt ceiling a useful legislative check on executive power or should other mechanisms be instituted in order for the federal government to maintain its fiscal responsibilities?   

Click here for a hardcopy of the Essential Questions and Debt Ceiling Vocabulary

Click here for a hardcopy of Extension Activities CLP suggests implementing with this content





A political standoff over the debt ceiling could harm the U.S. economy, All Things Considered, NPR, January 18, 2023

The Fight to Raise the Debt Ceiling, The Dispatch Podcast,

We Hit the Debt Ceiling Tomorrow! Should We Care?, Brian Lehrer: A Daily Politics Podcast, NPR, January 18, 2023

It’s debt ceiling season, Today, Explained, Vox, January 19, 2023


Background Resources:

31 USC Ch. 31: Public Debt, United States Code, United States House of Representatives

Article I, Section 8, Clause 1, United States Constitution 

The Debt Limit Through the Years, Bipartisan Policy Center

Debt Ceiling Defined: What Is the U.S. National Debt Ceiling?, Investopedia

The Debt Ceiling: An Explainer, The White House

Debt Limit, United States Department of the Treasury


Recent Articles:

What the U.S. Hitting the Debt Ceiling Means for You, Time, January 19, 2023

U.S. hits infamous debt limit. What it means and what happens next, CBC News, January 19, 2023

EXPLAINER: What Is the Debt Ceiling and Why Does It Matter?, U.S. News and World Report, January 19, 2023

Debt ceiling: America’s budget crisis of its own creation, BBC, January 19, 2023

The U.S. Hit the Debt Ceiling. What Does That Mean and What Happens Now?, The New York Times, January 19, 2023

Would minting a magical trillion-dollar coin really solve the debt ceiling crisis?, Fast Company, January 19, 2023

IMF says failure to increase U.S. debt ceiling would have ‘serious repercussions’, Yahoo! Finance, January 20, 2023

Treasury resorts to ‘extraordinary measures’ after US hits debt limit, The Hill, January 19, 2023


Recent Editorials:

Don’t Try to Appease Economic Terrorists, The New York Times, January 19, 2023

Stop the Charade: The Federal Budget Is Its Own ‘Debt-Ceiling’, Forbes, January 19, 2023

The Debt-Ceiling Nonsense Has Gone On Long Enough, Bloomberg, January 20, 2023

You Can Let Republicans Destroy the Economy, or You Can Call Their Bluff, The New York Times, January 20, 2023


Lesson Plans:

Bell Ringer: The Debt Ceiling, C-SPAN Classroom Network

Understanding the Debt Ceiling Debate and the Budget Control Act of 2011, EconEdLink 

Unit: Separation of Powers & the Debt Ceiling, New Hampshire Civics

Federal Budget Simulation Lesson Plan, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Fill-In – The Federal Debt Ceiling, The Learning Network, The New York Times

Bell Ringer: Challenges with the Discharge Petition Process, C-SPAN Classroom Network


Resources for Younger Students:

Founding Fathers framed today’s budget battles, in a sense, Newsela

EconExtra: All About the Debt Ceiling, Next Gen Personal Finance