Legislative Procedures for Adjusting the Public Debt Limit: A Brief Overview
Legislative Procedures for Adjusting the
Public Debt Limit: A Brief Overview
Bill Heniff Jr.
Analyst on the Congress and Legislative Process
Government and Finance Division
Almost all borrowing by the federal government is conducted by the Treasury
Department, within the restrictions established by a single, statutory limit on the total
amount of debt that may be outstanding at any time. Most adjustments to the debt limit
have been increases, but sometimes the change has been a reduction.
The annual budget resolution includes recommended levels of the public debt limit
for each fiscal year covered by the resolution. Because a budget resolution does not
become law, Congress and the President must enact legislation in order to implement
budget resolution policies. The House and Senate may develop and consider legislation
adjusting the debt limit in any one of three ways: (1) under regular legislative
procedures in both chambers, either as freestanding legislation or as a part of a measure
dealing with other topics; (2) pursuant to House Rule XXVII (the so-called Gephardt
rule); or (3) as part of the budget reconciliation process provided for under the
Congressional Budget Act of 1974. During the period from 1940 to the present,
Congress and the President have enacted a total of 88 measures adjusting the public debt
limit — 70 under regular legislative procedures in both chambers, 14 under the Gephardt
rule, and 4 under reconciliation procedures. The current debt limit is $11.315 trillion.
This report will be updated as developments warrant.
Almost all borrowing by the federal government is conducted by the Treasury
Department, within the restrictions established by a single, statutory limit on the total1
amount of debt that may be outstanding at any time. In a few instances, agencies such
as the Tennessee Valley Authority operate within their own borrowing limits established
separately in law. For years, the public debt limit has been codified in Section 3101(b)
of Title 31, United States Code. Periodic adjustments in the debt limit take the form of
1 For a discussion of federal debt, the debt limit, and debt management practices, see the Office
of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2009,
Analytical Perspectives, Chapter 16 — Federal Borrowing and Debt, Feb. 2008, pp. 229-241.
For an additional discussion of issues related to increasing the debt limit, see CRS Report
RL31967, The Debt Limit: History and Recent Increases, by D. Andrew Austin.
amendments to 31 U.S.C. 3101(b), usually by striking the current dollar limitation and
inserting a new one. While most adjustments to the debt limit have been increases, in
some instances the debt limit has been reduced or extended at its current level for a
The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 (P.L. 93-344, 2 U.S.C. 601-688) requires the
House and Senate to adopt a concurrent resolution on the budget each year before
considering revenue, spending, and debt-limit legislation. In addition to recommending
the appropriate levels of total revenues, spending, and the deficit or surplus, the budget
resolution also specifies the appropriate level of the debt limit for each fiscal year covered
by the measure. Inasmuch as a budget resolution does not become law, Congress and the
President must enact legislation implementing budget resolution policies, including any
needed adjustment in the debt limit. Even if a budget resolution is not adopted by the
House and Senate, as occurred in 1998, 2002, 2004, and 2006, legislation must be enacted
to raise the debt limit whenever it becomes insufficient.
Under current legislative procedures, the House and Senate may develop and
consider legislation adjusting the debt limit in any one of three ways: (1) under regular
legislative procedures in both chambers, either as freestanding legislation or as a part of
a measure dealing with other topics; (2) pursuant to House Rule XXVII (the so-called
Gephardt rule); or (3) as part of the budget reconciliation process provided for under the
Congressional Budget Act of 1974. While the Constitution requires that revenue
measures originate in the House, this requirement is not considered to apply to debt-limit
measures.3 Over the years, however, most debt-limit legislation has originated in the
House. In 2002 and 2004, a Senate-originated bill was the vehicle for the debt-limit
increase. The House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee
exercise jurisdiction over debt-limit legislation.
It is extremely difficult for Congress to effectively influence fiscal and budgetary
policy through action on legislation adjusting the debt limit. The need to raise (or lower)
the limit during a session is driven by many previous decisions regarding revenues and
spending stemming from legislation enacted earlier in the session or in prior years.
Nevertheless, the consideration of debt-limit legislation often is viewed as an opportunity
to reexamine fiscal and budgetary policy and is marked by controversy. Consequently,
House and Senate action on legislation adjusting the debt limit often is complicated,
hindered by political difficulties, and subject to delay.
As shown in Figure 1, a total of 88 debt-limit measures were enacted into law during
the period from 1940 to the present. The number of laws rose steadily from the decade
of the 1950s through the decade of the 1980s, from 6 to 24, but dropped to 13 in the
2 For example, P.L. 455 of the 79th Congress (60 Stat. 316; June 26, 1946) reduced the debt limit
from $300 billion to $275 billion as budget surpluses reemerged following World War II, and
P.L. 101-461 (104 Stat. 1078; October 25, 1990) extended the current debt limit level of $3.195
trillion for three days (as part of a series of short-term extensions) while a budget summit was
3 See the discussion on pages 16 and 17 of CRS Report RL31399, The Origination Clause of the
U.S. Constitution: Interpretation and Enforcement, by James V. Saturno.
month period in 1990, enacted largely to accommodate lengthy negotiations during a
budget summit between Congress and the President. Seven debt-limit laws have been
enacted so far in this decade.
Figure 1. Number of Measures Adjusting the Public Debt Limit
Enacted by Decade: 1940s to the Present
7 6 7mb
1 940s 195 0s 196 0s 19 70s 198 0s 1990 s 20 00s
Sources: Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2009,
Historical Tables, Table 7.3, Feb. 2008, pp. 130-133; and the Legislative Information System (LIS) of the
U.S. Congress [www.congress.gov].
As mentioned previously, debt-limit legislation may be considered under regular
legislative procedures in both chambers, pursuant to the House’s so-called Gephardt rule,
or as part of the budget reconciliation process. Of the total 88 debt-limit measures enacted
into law during the period from 1940 to the present, 70 were considered under regular
legislative procedures, 14 were initiated pursuant to the Gephardt rule, and four were
considered as part of omnibus budget reconciliation legislation. Compared to regular
legislative procedures, the Gephardt rule accelerates action in the House (but not the
Senate) and the budget reconciliation process expedites consideration in both chambers.
Table 1, at the end of this report, provides information on the 13 measures adjusting
the public debt limit enacted during the period from 1993 to the present. Of these 13
measures, eight were considered under regular legislative procedures in both chambers,
either as freestanding legislation (three measures) or as part of legislation involving other
matters (five measures), three were initiated pursuant to the Gephardt rule, and two were
considered as part of omnibus budget reconciliation legislation.
The three ways of developing and considering debt-limit legislation are discussed
Regular Legislative Procedures in Both Chambers. The House Ways and
Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee may originate measures adjusting
the debt limit at any time. The Senate usually acts on legislation originated by the House.
In 2002 and 2004, however, the Senate originated debt-limit bills (S. 2578 and S. 2986,
respectively), which became P.L. 107-199 and P.L. 108-415.
Consideration of debt-limit measures in the House usually is subject to special rules,
reported by the House Rules Committee, that may include debate limitations, restrictions
on the offering of amendments, and other expediting features. In the Senate, consideration
of debt-limit measures generally is not subject to expediting procedures; nongermane
amendments may be offered and the measures may be debated at length, unless cloture is
invoked or other limitations are agreed to by unanimous consent.
The most recent adjustment to the public debt limit (Section 122, Div. A, P.L. 110-
343), for instance, was considered under the regular legislative process as part of the
economic stabilization legislation. The Senate, on October 1, 2008, added an increase to
the public debt limit, among other provisions related to the proposed troubled assets relief
program, as an amendment to mental health parity legislation (H.R. 1424) under the terms
of a unanimous consent agreement. The House subsequently, under the terms of a special
rule (H.Res. 1525), agreed to the legislation without change on October 3. President
George W. Bush signed the legislation on the same day.
Gephardt Rule Procedures. Debt-limit legislation may be initiated pursuant to
House Rule XXVII, commonly referred to as the Gephardt rule (named after its author,
Representative Richard Gephardt).4 The Gephardt rule was established by P.L. 96-78 (93
Stat. 589-591; September 29, 1979) and first applied in calendar year 1980. It provides
for the automatic engrossment and transmittal to the Senate, upon the adoption of the
budget resolution, of a joint resolution changing the public debt limit by the amount
recommended in the budget resolution. The joint resolution is deemed to have passed the
House by the same vote as the conference report on the budget resolution.
The Gephardt rule originally was designated as House Rule XLIX. The House
recodified the rule as House Rule XXIII at the beginning of the 106th Congress, repealed
it at the beginning of the 107th Congress, and reinstated it, as new Rule XXVII, at the
beginning of the 108th Congress.
Since the rule was established in 1980, the House has originated 19 joint resolutions
under this procedure. The Senate passed 15 of these joint resolutions, passing 10 without
amendment and five with amendments. Of the remaining four joint resolutions, the Senate
began consideration on one but came to no resolution on it and took no action on three.
Of the 19 joint resolutions originated by the House under the Gephardt rule, 14 were
enacted into law. The most recent one enacted into law, H.J.Res. 43, originated in the
House pursuant to the adoption of the FY2008 budget resolution (S.Con.Res. 21) on May
and President Bush signed it into law on September 29 (P.L. 110-91; 121 Stat. 988).
4 For further information, see CRS Report RL31913, Developing Debt-Limit Legislation: The
House’s “Gephardt Rule,” by Bill Heniff Jr.
In 14 years during this period (calendar years 1988, 1990-1991, 1994-2002, 2004,
and 2006), the rule did not apply or was not used due to its suspension or repeal, or a
budget resolution was not finally agreed to. In most cases, the House suspended the rule
because legislation changing the statutory limit was not necessary at the time.
The Senate has no comparable procedure. If the Senate chooses to consider a House
joint resolution originated pursuant to the Gephardt rule, it does so under the regular
legislative process. The Senate sometimes has considered such debt-limit measures for
days and amended them. In 1985, for example, the Senate added extensive budget
enforcement procedures (the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of
1985, also known as the “Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act”) to H.J.Res. 372, a measure that
the House had originated under the Gephardt rule.
The Budget Reconciliation Process. The reconciliation process is an optional5
procedure that operates as an adjunct to the budget resolution process. The chief purpose
of the reconciliation process is to enhance Congress’s ability to change current law in
order to bring revenue, mandatory spending, and debt-limit levels into conformity with the
policies of the budget resolution. Reconciliation legislation is subject to expedited
consideration in both chambers. In the Senate, in particular, debate on reconciliation
legislation is limited, amendments must be germane, and extraneous matter is barred.
While the predominant focus of reconciliation legislation has been to change revenue
and spending levels, four such measures also were used to adjust the debt limit:
!the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1986 (P.L. 99-509; October
!the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-508;
November 5, 1990), Section 11901 (104 Stat. 1388-560);
!the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 (P.L. 103-66; August
10, 1993), Section 13411 (107 Stat. 565); and
!the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 (P.L. 105-33; August 5, 1997), Section
5 For more information on the reconciliation process, see CRS Report RL33030, The Budget
Reconciliation Process: House and Senate Procedures, by Robert Keith and Bill Heniff Jr.
Table 1. Legislation Adjusting the Public
Debt Limit Enacted From 1993 to the Present
Bill NumberProcedureType of ActNature ofAdjustmentPublic Law(Date Enacted)
H.R. 1430Regular legislativeDebt-limit increaseTemporary increaseP.L. 103-12
procedur es (04-06-1993)
H.R. 2264ReconciliationOmnibus budgetPermanent increaseP.L. 103-66
process r eco nc iliatio n (08-10-1993)
H.R. 2924Regular legislativeTimely payment ofTemporaryP.L. 104-103
proceduresSocial Security benefitsexemption for(02-08-1996)
H.R. 3021Regular legislativeTimely payment ofTemporaryP.L. 104-115
proceduresSocial Security benefitsexemption for(03-12-1996)
H.R. 3136Regular legislativeContract with AmericaPermanent increaseP.L. 104-121
H.R. 2015ReconciliationOmnibus budgetPermanent increaseP.L. 105-33
process r eco nc iliatio n (08-05-1997)
S. 2578Regular legislativeDebt-limit increasePermanent increaseP.L. 107-199
procedur es (06-28-2002)
H.J.Res. 51Gephardt ruleDebt-limit increasePermanent increaseP.L. 108-24
procedur es (05-27-2003)
S. 2986Regular legislativeDebt-limit increasePermanent increaseP.L. 108-415
procedur es (11-19-2004)
H.J.Res. 47Gephardt ruleDebt-limit increasePermanent increaseP.L. 109-182
procedur es (03-20-2006)
H.J.Res. 43Gephardt ruleDebt-limit increasePermanent increaseP.L. 110-91
procedur es (09-29-2007)
H.R. 3221Regular legislativeHousing and EconomicPermanent increaseP.L. 110-289
proceduresRecovery Act of 2008(07-30-2008)
H.R. 1424Regular legislativeEmergency EconomicPermanent increaseP.L. 110-343
proceduresStabilization Act of(10-03-2008)
Sources: Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2009, HistoricalTables, Table 7.3, Feb. 2008, pp. 130-133; and the Legislative Information System (LIS), [http://www.congress.gov].