Raising the Debt Limit, 1980 - 2011

July 5, 2011

See who holds the federal debt.

This graphic shows monthly debt limit, national debt, and marketable debt since 1980, as well as quarterly GDP during the same period. Click on the smaller preview image, or drag the shaded area, to shift the view of the larger graph. Click on the graph lines to show detailed information for all four measurements.

Key:

  • Debt limit: A ceiling set by law on the amount of money the federal government is permitted to borrow.
  • Debt subject to the limit: More than 99 percent of all borrowing by the federal government is bound by the statutory limit. A relatively tiny portion of the more than $14 trillion currently owed — roughly $50 billion — is excluded from the limit.
  • Marketable debt: The value of Treasury securities that are bought and sold by investors. Non-marketable debt includes roughly $4.6 trillion currently held by government trust funds, savings bonds and some issues that are sold to state and local governments.
  • Gross domestic product: The total value of goods and services produced in the United States.
Circles above the debt limit line represent successful votes to raise the debt limit. Each half (House on the left, Senate on the right) is colored to represent the prevailing majority for the vote if one existed ( for a Republican majority, for a Democratic majority). Bipartisan votes in a chamber are colored gold, like so: .

Background:

Unless Congress votes to raise the federal debt limit by Aug. 2, the Treasury Department warns that the government will not be able to borrow in order to continue to meet its financial obligations and will fall into default. This is not the first time that the debt limit has occupied the Capitol’s attention. Over the past 30 years, Congress has passed and the president signed 35 laws that raised the debt ceiling. Debt limit increases have often been just one provision in a larger measure. Frequently, such bills were also used to enact budgetary controls or to reduce the annual budget deficits that require the government to borrow in the first place.

The current limit of $14.294 trillion was set by a law (PL 111-139) enacted in February 2010. By comparison, in February 1981 the debt limit was increased to $985 billion.

Bills to raise the debt limit sometimes pass with bipartisan majorities, particularly in the Senate. But because they are usually politically difficult, votes to pass debt limit increases sometimes split along party lines. Historically, the party that holds the White House generally has to supply the majority of the votes in Congress to raise the debt ceiling. When Congress voted to increase the limit in 2004, for example, the bill was supported by a majority of Republicans in both the House and Senate, and most Democrats in both chambers voted against it. Congress has raised the debt limit three times since Barack Obama became president in January 2009, and no House Republican voted for any of those increases.

Interactive: Thomas Wilburn, Research/Editing: Sarah Vanderbilt