The Treasury Department said Friday the US will reach the debt limit on January 19 and “extraordinary measures” will need to be taken, setting up one of the first major battles on Capitol Hill after Republicans took control of the House.
The debt limit is the maximum that the federal government is allowed to borrow, after Congress set a level more than a century ago to curtail government borrowing. Congress has in the past raised the debt limit to avoid a default on US debt that economists have warned would be “financial Armageddon.” That’s what lawmakers did in late 2021 following the last standoff over the debt ceiling.
“Presidents and Treasury secretaries of both parties have made clear that the government must not default on any obligation of the United States, and, as noted, Treasury secretaries in every administration over recent decades have used these extraordinary measures when necessary,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen wrote in a letter to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Friday. “Yet the use of extraordinary measures enables the government to meet its obligations for only a limited amount of time.”
“It is therefore critical that Congress act in a timely manner to increase or suspend the debt limit. Failure to meet the government’s obligations would cause irreparable harm to the US economy, the livelihoods of all Americans, and global financial stability,” Yellen wrote.
However, Yellen also wrote that it’s unlikely that cash and “extraordinary measures” would be exhausted before early June.
The deadline comes far sooner than many experts had expected. Most were predicting the debt ceiling would last at least until the summer, when the Treasury Department would have to start taking extraordinary measures to avoid defaulting on the government’s obligations.
The debt ceiling was last raised in December 2021 to $31.4 trillion.
Yellen said the immediate measures would mean the US would redeem existing investments and suspend new investments of the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund and the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund. Reinvestments in the Government Securities Investment Fund of the Federal Employees Retirement System Thrift Savings Plan would also be suspended. Those funds would be made whole once the impasse is settled.
Goldman Sachs warned last month that a close call could set off turmoil on Wall Street that causes losses in the retirement accounts and investment portfolios of everyday Americans.
“It seems likely that uncertainty over the debt limit in 2023 could lead to substantial volatility in financial markets,” Goldman Sachs economists wrote, noting that the 2011 standoff helped cause a deep selloff in the US stock market.
Beyond markets, Goldman Sachs said a failure to raise the debt limit in time “would pose greater risk to government spending and ultimately to economic growth than it would to Treasury securities themselves.”
That’s because in order to avoid a default on US debt, the federal government would shift money around to keep paying interest on Treasuries. That would create a massive hole that would need to be filled by delaying a host of other payments — including ones that millions of Americans count on such as paychecks to federal employees, benefits to veterans and Social Security payments.
“A failure to make timely payments would likely hit consumer confidence hard,” Goldman Sachs wrote.
This is a breaking story and will be updated.