Every few years or even months since 1917, Congress has voted to raise the national debt ceiling — the maximum amount the federal government is allowed to borrow.
"Basically it's served, for quite some time now, as a speed bump along the road," says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget at The New America Foundation. "Which just means, government stops, looks at what it's been doing and says, okay, we're going to borrow some more, and they approve...an increase."
Since 1962 the debt ceiling has been raised 74 times, and there has never been an instance where Congress has voted down an increase.
The current debt ceiling is $14.3 trillion – an amount the U.S. national debt is expected to reach in May. But this time around, some within Congress are pushing back.
"We're spending money we do not have, we're borrowing from our children and our grandchildren, some of whom are not yet born," says Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). "That doesn't feel right to me, especially when we're being asked to increase the debt ceiling without putting in place any kind of mechanism to make sure we eventually stop doing this."
Lee says he would vote for another increase in the debt ceiling only if the move is accompanied by a balanced-budget amendment phased in over five years, which would eventually prohibit the federal government from spending more than it takes in during any given year.
"I completely share the concern that if we continue to borrow, this is a terrible situation for the country and what we're doing right now is the wrong fiscal course to be on," MacGuineas says — but she differs with Lee on the immediate steps forward.
If the debt ceiling is not raised, she says, an unprepared federal government could start to default on its loans.
"If we turn into deadbeat U.S.A., that just changes the whole way our system works," she says. "We would not be able to borrow on the same terms again, interest rates would shoot up and that would have an effect on the rest of the economy and it would likely put us back into a recession."
MacGuineas' prescription: Lift the debt ceiling this time, but attach budgetary targets to get the government on the path to reducing the debt.
"This should be the speed bump that makes us change our ways," she says. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.