U.S. Treasury Warns Nation Will Hit Debt Limit in October if Congress Does Not Act

The federal government is approaching a never-before-seen default on its debt limit, which is likely to hit between mid-October and mid-November, according to a Washington think tank echoing warnings issued this week by the U.S. Treasury.

The Bipartisan Policy Center said the default date is likely to come between few weeks after the start of the new budget year on October 1 and mid-November, which has been dubbed the "X Date" by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. The government will likely run out of options to avoid the hitting the debt limit without action from Congress, the Associated Press reported.

"Given the current pace of federal spending and revenues, we are reasonably confident that the X Date won't arrive before the start of the fiscal year or even the week or so following," said Shai Akabas, director of economic policy for the center. "But this train could go off the rails shortly thereafter."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Janet Yellen
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned this week that the government is likely to reach its debt limit this fall without action from Congress. Pictured, Yellen departs from a meeting in the U.S. Capitol Building on August 03, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Senate has moved on to the amendments process this week for the legislative text of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which aims to fund improvements to roads, bridges, dams, climate resiliency and broadband internet. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Yellen sent a letter this week to the leaders of Congress, saying that if the government does not act, the U.S. will be unable to avert a default in October.

Yellen has been employing what is deemed in law "extraordinary measures" to keep the government functioning and from hitting the debt limit, which went back to effect on August 1 after being suspended for two years.

The current limit stands at $28.4 trillion and Yellen has been using bookkeeping maneuvers to disinvest various government trust funds, such as government employee pension funds, to remain below the debt ceiling.

If those resources are exhausted, the government will no longer be unable to pay its bills, or even service U.S. debt, putting the country in default for the first time in its history.

Such an event would send shockwaves through the global financial system since U.S. Treasury securities are considered the safest investments in the world.

Republicans have said they do not plan to support an increase in the debt limit, though they did so when Donald Trump was president. GOP lawmakers have said Democrats should increase or suspend the debt limit using the budget reconciliation process they are using for President Joe Biden's $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill. That can be done without GOP votes.

On Wednesday, however, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that Democrats would not be putting the debt limit increase in the reconciliation bill. The anticipation is that they will try to include the debt limit in a stop-gap spending bill that must pass before the new budget year begins on October 1. If that measure does not pass, the government would face the prospect of a partial government shutdown until Congress did approve funding for the new year.

An analysis by the policy center found that Treasury had approximately $400 billion worth of cash on hand when the debt limit went back into effect on August 1 and the availability of the various bookkeeping measures to create room under the debt ceiling to meet government spending needs.

But the center said that those resources were nearing exhaustion.

"Once the Treasury Department exhausts these resources, military pay, veterans' benefits, Medicare provider payments and numerous other payments would come due," the center's analysis said. "Crossing the debt limit X Date would be an unprecedented event, carrying grave risk to financial markets and the global economy."

While Congress has never failed to deal with the debt limit before a default occurred, in 2011 a budget standoff between the Obama administration and Republican lawmakers came so close to a default that the credit rating agency Standard & Poor's downgraded a portion of Treasury securities from their AAA rating, something that had never occurred before.