Debt limit Q&A

Question: When will the debt exceed the limit?

Answer: Treasury officials have estimated they will need additional borrowing ability by Aug. 2, although some experts in government finance think the date will be a few days later.

Q: What happens then?

A: If Congress has not raised the ceiling, the Treasury cannot borrow more money. Because tax collections are less than the government's obligations, the government would not legally be able to pay all its bills.

Q: What about just paying the highest-priority bills?

In August, the government is expected to collect $172 billion in revenue and will face $307 billion in bills, according to an analysis by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank. So, in theory, the government would have the money to pay a little more than 55 percent of its bills during the month. But which bills to pay? Interest on existing debt comes to just less than $30 billion; Social Security checks are $50 billion; Medicare is another $50 billion; payments to military contractors for weapons, fuel and other costs comes to $32 billion; and salaries for active-duty military personnel come to $3 billion. Add in unemployment benefits ($13 billion for the month), and the government would have run out of money without paying a single civilian employee or running any of its domestic programs, including courts, disaster relief, national parks, veterans benefits or welfare programs.

Q: Would picking and choosing among programs be legal?

A: No one really knows. It certainly would be challenged.

McClatchy newspapers