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CBO Confirms: If Congress Fails to Act, Treasury Could Go Bust in Days

November 30, 2021 by Dan McCue
CBO Confirms: If Congress Fails to Act, Treasury Could Go Bust in Days
The seal of the U.S. Treasury Department. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — If the debt limit remains unchanged and the Treasury Department follows through on transferring $118 billion to the Highway Trust Fund on Dec. 15, the federal government could run out of cash before the end of the month, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Tuesday.

The debt limit — also called the debt ceiling — is the maximum amount of debt the Treasury Department can issue to the public or to other federal agencies. The amount is set by law and has been increased repeatedly over the years to finance the government’s ballooning operations.

On Oct. 14, Congress raised the debt limit by $480 billion to a total of $28.9 trillion. 

Four days later, the Treasury Department announced a continuation of the “debt issuance suspension period” that commenced on Aug. 1, during which it could take “extraordinary measures” to borrow additional funds without breaching the debt ceiling. 

On Tuesday, the CBO said the Treasury has already reached the new debt limit of $28.9 trillion, so it currently has no room to borrow under its standard operating procedures, other than to replace maturing debt. 

To avoid breaching the limit, it said, the Treasury is using the extraordinary measures that allow it to continue to borrow additional amounts for a limited time.

“How long those extraordinary measures last will be heavily influenced by transactions scheduled over the coming weeks,” the budget office said. “For example, the Treasury has announced that it will implement a provision of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (Public Law 117-58) by transferring $118 billion to the Highway Trust Fund on December 15.

“If the debt limit remained unchanged and if the Treasury made that transfer in full, the government’s ability to borrow using extraordinary measures would be exhausted soon after it made the transfer,” the CBO said. “In that case, the Treasury would most likely run out of cash before the end of December. If that occurred, the government would be unable to pay its obligations fully, and it would delay making payments for some activities, default on its debt obligations or both.”

The budget office said in the absence of congressional action, the best case scenario may be for Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to defer all or part of the transfer to the Highway Trust Fund. 

However, it noted, it’s unclear whether she even has that authority.

If she does, and if payments were made to the Highway Trust Fund only in the amounts needed for immediate use, the government would be able to pay its obligations for a few weeks longer than it would if the payments were made in full — until sometime in January.

Leaving the reader of its sobering analysis even more parched, the CBO went on to note “the timing and amount of revenue collections and outlays over the next few weeks are especially uncertain, given the magnitude of outlays related to the 2020–2021 coronavirus pandemic, and could differ from CBO’s projections.” 

“Therefore, the extraordinary measures could be exhausted, and the Treasury could run out of cash, earlier or later” than these projections, the CBO said.

Dan can be reached at dan@thewellnews.com and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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