Today the U.S. government officially borrowed beyond its $14.29 trillion statutory debt limit. And even though the Obama administration has assured us that accounting gimmickry will allow the government to borrow for another few months, the breach has given seeming urgency to Congressional negotiations to raise the debt ceiling. Republicans are making a great show of acting tough by linking their "yes" votes with promises for future budget cuts (that could even slow the rate of debt increases at some uncertain point in the future). But as we go through the process, many novice observers may wonder why we have a debt ceiling at all when our government has never shown the slightest inclination to respect its prior self-imposed limits.
The ceiling was first imposed in 1917 as part of a deal that passed the Liberty Bond Act that funded America's entry into the First World War. To make it easy for the Treasury to sell those bonds, Congress also amended the Federal Reserve Act to allow the Fed to hold government bonds as collateral. But given the potential for unchecked Federal deficits, Congress sought to limit taxpayer exposure to $11.5 billion.
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