With a deadline of Sept. 29 looming and Congress nearing their summer recess, the debt ceiling is primed to be a big issue when they return. Here's what you need to know. (Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

The perennial threat of the government failing to raise the debt ceiling is upon us again.

You may remember this issue from budget debates gone by, the limit put on the government’s ability to borrow money to pay its bills. When the limit is raised by Congress, many Americans assume it means that the government is thereby authorized to increase the budget deficit. That’s incorrect. The debt limit is raised not to make more room on the credit card, but to let the government pay down on the card’s balance. When it has bills to pay but doesn’t have the money to pay them because the limit has been reached, it needs to be raised.

This used to be relatively noncontroversial, until conservatives realized that it offered an effective point of leverage against the administration of President Barack Obama. Why leverage? Because a failure by the government to pay its bills would affect the country’s credit standing.

“A default would likely set off a major disruption to the world financial system,” our Damian Paletta wrote on Tuesday, “with a stock market crash and surging interest rates that could send the economy into a recession.” The Treasury Department’s own website makes the case for raising it, warning of “catastrophic economic consequences” should it not happen. Conservatives figured that Obama would do anything to avoid that happening, so raising the debt ceiling was no longer a simple process.


Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) (Jason E. Miczek/AP)

Unless the limit is raised, the government will reach the debt limit at the end of next month, on Sept. 29. But another part of Paletta’s story caught our eye in that regard: Over the 60 days between now and then, the Senate and the House will be in session at the same time on only 12 of them.

Why? Because Congress likes to take August off. We looked at this in May, creating a visual showing when Congress had and hadn’t been in session since 1979. (It’s at the bottom of this article, too.) Here’s what that break looks like this year, with red boxes indicating days the Senate and House are in session.


The Senate is scheduled to work on 27 of the 60 days, we’ll note, assuming they stick around for the next two weeks as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had scheduled back when he thought that Republicans might be working on a health-care bill. If they leave early, it won’t matter much, since the House left on vacation last week. It’s only scheduled to work 12 days for three of the four weeks that month.

(This is the point at which we do our due diligence and note that members of the House and Senate claim that, just because they’re not in session in D.C., they’re often still working. That’s true to an extent, but it’s also true that most of the August recess is not spent diligently showing up to district offices and holding town hall meetings. There is also some fishing.)

Increasing the debt limit doesn’t take long, mind you, assuming that it all goes smoothly. (It tends to, in the end, since no one wants to throw a wrench into the U.S. economy even if it seems politically useful to threaten to.) But it reinforces the point that arises regularly during August: There’s a lot of important stuff to do, and perhaps Congress should do it?

After debt-ceiling talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Aug. 1, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said "we all know" it needs to be raised "to make sure America continues to never, ever default." (The Washington Post)

It’s not like Congress doesn’t get time off. So far this year, the Senate has been out of session on 31 of 151 weekdays, or a fifth of the time. The House has been out for 54 of them, more than a third.

Congress has this habit of waiting until the last minute to get things done, like high school students who read all of their summer-reading books the week before school starts, so it seems likely that the limit will be raised in time to avoid catastrophe. It’s just a good reminder that the August recess will always come at a moment when Congress could be doing something more useful.

And, while we’re at it: Kids shouldn’t get the summers off, either. What are they, congressmen?