Extraordinary Measures (Public Debt)
The extraordinary measures means the actions taken by the Department of the Treasury to avoid defaulting on the Federal Debt once the limit on the public debt has been reached (“debt subject to limit”) and government borrowing on the open market must cease. Instead, the Federal Government may manipulate its accounts, specifically changing the way it carries out its financial activities. For example it can cease investing Federal employees Thrift Savings Plan (the Federal Government’s IRA-style program) contributions into the government securities fund (the “G Fund”). This frees room to use those resources to fund the Federal Government, though the payments must legally made later to assure that the employees retirement program is unaffected.
These are financial transactions that have no substantive impact (other than the appearance of using them and the political ramifications they may have).
Department of the Treasury Explanation of Extraordinary Measures
Description of the Extraordinary Measures
Secretaries of the Treasury in both Republican and Democratic administrations have used their authority to take certain extraordinary measures in order to prevent the United States from defaulting on its obligations as Congress deliberated on increasing the statutory debt limit. Four of these extraordinary measures are available at this time. The other measures that have been taken in the past are either unavailable or of limited use.
The extraordinary measures currently available are: (1) suspending sales of State and Local Government Series Treasury securities; (2) determining that a “debt issuance suspension period” exists, which permits the redemption of existing, and the suspension of new, investments of the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund and the Postal Service Retirees Health Benefit Fund; (3) suspending reinvestment of the Government Securities Investment Fund and (4) suspending reinvestment of the Exchange Stabilization Fund. These measures are described in more detail below.
These extraordinary measures, all of which have been employed during previous debt limit impasses, have the effect of creating or conserving headroom beneath the debt limit. These measures are limited and therefore can postpone only briefly the need for an increase in the statutory debt limit. On average, the public debt of the United States is increasing by approximately $100 billion per month (although there are significant variations from month to month). In total, the extraordinary measures currently available free up approximately $200 billion in headroom under the limit, as described below.
1. State and Local Government Securities
The Treasury Department has authority to suspend its issuance of State and Local Government Series Treasury securities (SLGS). This however, is a limited measure that does not create headroom under the debt limit.
SLGS are special purpose Treasury securities issued to state and local government entities. In ordinary times, the Treasury Department issues SLGS to state and local governments to assist these governments in complying with Federal tax laws when they have cash proceeds to invest from their issuance of tax exempt bonds. When Treasury issues these securities, they count against the debt limit. There is no statutory or other requirement for the Treasury Department to issue SLGS; they are issued in order to assist state and local governments, and Treasury may suspend SLGS sales as the debt subject to limit approaches the debt limit.
This action does not free up headroom under the debt limit. Rather, it conserves headroom (i.e., it eliminates increases in debt that would count against the debt limit if issued). Approximately $4 to $17 billion in SLGS is issued per month, although this amount is subject to substantial variation from month to month. Some state and local governments issuing certain types of new debt after the SLGS sales are suspended will have to invest the proceeds in alternative assets in order to remain in compliance with tax law.
2. Declaring a “Debt Issuance Suspension Period”
Once the debt limit has been reached, Treasury has authority to declare a “debt issuance suspension period” which permits Treasury to take actions regarding investments under the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund (CSRDF) and the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund (PSRHBF).
a. Declaring a “Debt Issuance Suspension Period”
The CSRDF provides defined benefits to retired and disabled Federal employees covered by the Civil Service Retirement System. The fund is invested in special-issue Treasury securities, which count against the debt limit. Congress has given Treasury statutory authority to take certain actions in the event of a debt limit impasse. Specifically, the statute authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury to determine that a “debt issuance suspension period” exists and, once he has done so, Treasury can (1) redeem certain existing investments in the CSRDF, and
(2) suspend new investment.
The Secretary of the Treasury does not have unlimited discretion to declare a debt issuance suspension period. Under the statute that governs the CSRDF, the term “debt issuance suspension period” means the period of time that the Treasury Secretary determines that Treasury securities cannot be issued without exceeding the debt limit. The determination of the length of the period must be based on the facts as they exist at the time.
Declaring a debt issuance suspension period is a limited measure that relates only to the CSRDF; it has no impact on any other investments or any other portion of the debt. Moreover, it only provides limited additional time. A two-month debt issuance suspension period, for example, would free up approximately $12 billion in headroom.1
During a debt issuance suspension period, civil service benefit payments would continue to be made as long as the United States has not yet exhausted the extraordinary measures. Once the extraordinary measures have been exhausted, however, the U.S. Government will be limited in its ability to make payments across the government. After the debt limit impasse has ended, the statute provides that the CSRDF is to be made whole.2 Therefore employees and retirees are unaffected by these actions.
b. One-time measure available on December 31
The same statute that authorizes Treasury to redeem existing investments during a debt issuance suspension period also authorizes Treasury to suspend new investments by the CSRDF during such a period. On December 31, there is an interest payment of approximately $16 billion scheduled to be made to the fund. Ordinarily, this interest payment would be invested. But with the investment suspension authority available, Treasury may suspend the investment of the interest. Suspending the investment would free up approximately $16 billion in headroom. In addition, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 provides that investments in the PSRHBF shall be made in the same manner as investments for the CSRDF. Investing the PSRHBF in the same manner as the CSRDF would free up approximately $1 billion in headroom.3 It should be understood that this suspension of reinvestment that frees up headroom is a one-time measure: it is only available on December 31.
3. G Fund
Once the debt limit has been reached, Treasury may also suspend the daily reinvestment of the Treasury securities held by the Government Securities Investment Fund (G Fund) of the Federal Employees’ Retirement System Thrift Savings Plan.
The G Fund is a money market defined-contribution retirement fund for Federal employees. The fund is invested in special-issue Treasury securities, which count against the debt limit. The entire balance matures daily and is ordinarily reinvested. Congress has granted Treasury the statutory authority to suspend reinvestment of all or part of the balance of the
G Fund when the Secretary determines that the fund cannot be fully invested without exceeding the debt limit.4
Using this measure immediately frees up headroom under the debt limit. Because the G Fund balance is approximately $156 billion, using this measure can immediately create up to approximately $156 billion in headroom.
During the period of the investment suspension, payments from the G Fund continue to be made as long as the United States has not yet exhausted the extraordinary measures. Once the United States has exhausted the extraordinary measures, however, the U.S. Government will be limited in its ability to make payments across the government. After the debt limit impasse has ended, the G Fund is made whole.5 Therefore participants in the Thrift Savings Plan who contribute to the G Fund are unaffected by the actions described above.
4. Exchange Stabilization Fund
Treasury may also suspend the daily reinvestment of Treasury securities held by the Exchange Stabilization Fund (ESF).
The ESF has a number of uses, including purchasing or selling foreign currencies. A portion of the ESF is held in U.S. dollars, and the dollar-balance of the ESF is invested in special-issue Treasury securities. The entire dollar-balance matures daily. There is no requirement that the Treasury Department invest the ESF, so Treasury may suspend the investment of the dollar-balance of the ESF during a debt limit impasse.
Suspending the daily reinvestment of the dollar-balance of the ESF immediately frees up headroom under the debt limit. Because the dollar-balance of the ESF is approximately $23 billion, this would create up to approximately $23 billion in headroom.
After a debt limit impasse, the interest lost by the ESF is not restored: there is no existing authority to reimburse the ESF for lost interest during the period that the dollar-balance is not invested.
As described above, these four extraordinary measures can free up approximately $200 billion in headroom.
Other Measures Used in the Past Are No Longer Available or of Limited Use
The other measures that have been used in past debt limit impasses in order to postpone the date by which the debt limit needed to be increased are either not available or of limited use.
First, although in the past Treasury Secretaries have suspended the issuance of U.S. savings bonds to the public, doing so now would be of little benefit. Suspending the issuance of U.S. savings bonds would not free up any headroom under the debt limit. As is the case with suspending sales of SLGS, suspending the sales of savings bonds would only eliminate increases in debt that would count against the debt limit if the securities were issued. Moreover, suspending such sales conserves very little headroom.6 Second, measures relating to the Federal Financing Bank (FFB) are of limited use.7 Third, a measure previously used, involving the calling in of cash that Treasury kept on deposit at banks, is no longer available: Treasury no longer keeps these balances.8 Finally, Congress has in the past provided one-time tools in the midst of a debt limit impasse;9 those authorities expired nearly 17 years ago.
Although the U.S. Government owns other assets, such as gold, there are prudential or legal limitations on its ability to sell these assets. Selling the Nation’s gold to meet payment obligations would undercut confidence in the United States both here and abroad, and would be extremely destabilizing to the world financial system. With respect to financial assets acquired as part of the response to the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009, Treasury has already sold most of these assets and is conducting an orderly wind-down of the remaining investments. A fire sale of these assets, however, would be disruptive and would harm taxpayer interests. Similar considerations argue against fire sales of other public assets. And, in any event, asset sales would not generate sufficient revenue to make an appreciable difference in when the debt limit must be raised. Finally, for both legal and practical reasons, sale of the government’s portfolio of student loans is not feasible. For these reasons, Secretaries of the Treasury of both parties have concluded that asset sales are not a prudent or viable alternative to increasing the debt limit.