WASHINGTON (AP) — The bipartisan budget agreement Congress sent President Barack Obama on Friday renews the government's ability to borrow to pay its bills, as always clamping a limit on that power. And as they have done several times before, lawmakers decided to make that authority expire on a specified date, not when the accumulated debt hits a particular dollar figure.
That achieves two things.
The government's already hit its current $18.1 trillion borrowing limit. Setting a new ceiling by specifying a future expiration date gives lawmakers a clear deadline for renewing it again.
Resorting instead to a dollar amount can lead to uncertainty, since the economy's health and other unpredictable factors affecting federal borrowing make it hard to forecast exactly when Congress would need to act.
There's a second, political benefit for lawmakers. It can be a lot easier to vote for a bill that extends borrowing to a particular date than one that raises the limit by a specific — and huge — amount of money.
The new budget agreement allows federal borrowing until March 15, 2017, without specifying the amount of money. It's possible that could mean $1 trillion in new borrowing — a huge sum many politicians would be happy to avoid specifically endorsing.
The national debt is the accumulated I.O.U. the government owes the public and itself, such as money it must pay to the Social Security and Medicare trust funds.
Congress has always clamped limits on federal borrowing. Lawmakers have changed the debt ceiling 15 times since 2001, when the ceiling was $5.7 trillion, including debt-limit suspensions in 2013 and 2014.