Weather Updates

How did we get here? A debt crisis Q&A

Updated: July 26, 2011 2:08AM

Q: What is the debt ceiling?

A: It’s a legal limit on how much debt the government can accumulate. The government takes on debt two ways: It borrows money from investors by issuing Treasury bonds, and it borrows from itself, mostly from the Social Security trust fund, which comes from payroll taxes. Congress created the debt limit in 1917. It’s unique to the United States. Most countries let their debts rise automatically when government spending outpaces tax revenue. Congress has increased the debt limit 10 times since 2001.

Q: Why is the prospect of not raising the debt ceiling so worrisome?

A: The government now borrows more than 40 cents of each dollar it spends. If the debt ceiling does not rise, the government would need to choose what to pay and what not, including benefits like Social Security, wages for the military or other bills. It also might delay interest payments on Treasury bonds. Any default could lead to financial panic weakening the country’s credit rating, the dollar and the already hobbled economy. Interest rates would likely rise, increasing the cost of borrowing for the government and ordinary Americans.

Q: How did the debt grow from $5.8 trillion in 2001 to its current $14.3 trillion?

A: The biggest contributors to the nearly $9 trillion increase over a decade were:

♦ 2001 and 2003 tax cuts under President George W. Bush: $1.6 trillion

♦ Additional interest costs: $1.4 trillion

♦ Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: $1.3 trillion

♦ Economic stimulus package under Obama: $800 billion

♦ 2010 tax cuts, a compromise by Obama and Republicans that extended jobless benefits and cut payroll taxes: $400 billion

♦ 2003 creation of Medicare’s prescription drug benefit: $300 billion

♦ 2008 financial industry bailout: $200 billion

♦ Hundreds of billions less in revenue than expected since the Great Recession began in December 2007

♦ Other spending increases in domestic, farm and defense programs, adding lesser amounts

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.