Debt-ceiling-crisis primer: A compilation of helpful stories, charts, and live blogs to help you keep up with the default…

Journalism in the public interest.
July 25 2011 5:43 PM

A Primer on the Debt-Ceiling Crisis

A compilation of helpful stories, charts, and live blogs that will help you keep up with the debt-ceiling debate.

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Speaker of the House John Boehner and President Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Speaker of the House John Boehner and President Barack Obama

Congress has until a week from tomorrow to raise the debt ceiling, the cap on the amount of money the Treasury can borrow to pay the government's bills. As the clock keeps ticking, you may still have unanswered questions. How dire could the consequences of not raising the debt ceiling be? What are the possible solutions? Here's a reading list to help you keep up.

Following the debt ceiling debate in real time. Slate has an updating infographic that lets you see how much money the Treasury has in its bank account right now. For the latest news and analysis, the Wall Street Journal has a frequently updated live blog. The Economist is also doing daily debt ceiling updates. Some good people to follow for updates on Twitter include CNBC's @JamesPethokoukis, Time magazine's @MarkHalperin, CBS's @NorahODonnell, NBC's @LukeRussert and @KellyO, Slate's @daveweigel, and the Bipartisan Policy Center (@BPC_Bipartisan).

The basics on the debt ceiling (including where it comes from). An earlier guide of ours answers basic questions about the debt ceiling, such as "What is the debt ceiling, really?" and "Is the debt ceiling necessary?" Poynter has a guide to common misconceptions about the debt ceiling that can help you cut through misleading coverage. It's important to note, as Poynter does, that raising the debt ceiling doesn't mean that we're increasing spending, but that we're letting the Treasury borrow money to pay for things we've already agreed to spend on. Here's how NPR Correspondent Robert Smith explained the situation to Poynter:

"The way I put it is that Congress has already ordered the pizza. They approved the pepperoni. They called up and had someone deliver it," Smith said via email. "Now the pizza guy is knocking at the door, and asking to get paid. If you don't raise the debt ceiling, it's like saying we didn't want that pizza in the first place. Maybe he'll go away if we don't answer."

The New York Times has a helpful chart that breaks down which policies have contributed to the national debt over the Bush and Obama administrations. This chart, tweeted James Fallows at the Atlantic, "should accompany every story about the debt ceiling debate." Talking Points Memo explains that most of the U.S. national debt is actually owed to the United States—it's money that some government agencies have borrowed from each other.The Guardian's data blog has a rundown of which foreign countries the United States owes and how much we owe them.


What might happen if the debt limit isn't raised?
Basically, anyone and anything that relies on federal government funds may not get paid, including members of the U.S. military and military contractors and people receiving Social Security checks. The New York Times has a story detailing what may happen to state governments if the debt ceiling doesn't get extended. Bloomberg has an interactive that lets you take on the role of the Treasury trying to decide which of its bills to pay.

The U.S. credit rating might get downgraded, which could raise the cost of borrowing and cause panic in financial markets and dumping of U.S. bonds. The IMF said today that a downgrade could be "extremely damaging" to the world economy. Forbes has a piece weighing the pros and cons of a credit rating downgrade and whether or not it's inevitable.

What, and who, is holding up the deal? Much of the debate has centered on other things that could go along with raising the debt ceiling, such as repeal of health care law. (Here's an earlier post we did on that.) This New York Times chart lays out the major obstacles to working out a debt ceiling deal. At the New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Drew has an insightful summary of the failures of the negotiations so far.

Possible solutions. As of last week, there were eight possible deals on the table, all of which the New York Times' Caucus blog detailed in a cheat sheet. After debt ceiling negotiations temporarily broke off on Friday, Congressional party leaders began drafting two new plans. Bloomberg has the details of those plans here. Bill Clinton also raised the possibility that Obama could raise the debt ceiling without Congressional approval, using a provision in the 14th Amendment. The New York Times explains how Clinton's recommendation would work. In the event that a deal isn't reached, CNBC's John Carney suggests that the Federal Reserve might be able to keep the Treasury afloat by selling its Treasury securities. At the New Yorker, James Surowiecki argues that it would be best to just got rid of the debt ceiling altogether.

Braden Goyette is the social media intern at ProPublica, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.

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