If the U.S. defaults on its debt, Social Security, tax refunds, other payments are at risk


The United States may default on its bills for the first time in history later this month, unless Congress allows the federal government to take on more debt. But raising the debt ceiling has become stuck in partisan mire, leaving the United States hurtling toward default and raising hard questions about what expenses might not get paid.

[The debt-ceiling fight, explained]

The federal government can only borrow money up to a maximum amount set by Congress. The United States reached that limit in August and has been unable to issue debt since. Over the past few months, the Treasury Department has relied on financial maneuvers and emergency measures to cover costs. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen estimates those resources will run out around Oct. 18, even as bills keep rolling in.

Money will still flow into Treasury’s coffers each day, mainly from taxes. However, that money won’t be enough to cover day-to-day federal expenses, according to an analysis from the Bipartisan Policy Center.

According to estimates from the Bipartisan Policy Center, Treasury will only bring in enough money to pay about 60 percent of its expenses in the first week of default, leaving hard questions about what bills will be paid and what bills will not.

Here are some of the biggest expenses that the country may not be able to pay if Treasury runs out of reserves by Oct. 18:

It’s unclear what Treasury would do if the debt ceiling isn’t raised by Oct. 18.

“The Treasury Department could likely prioritize some payments over others,” said Rachel Snyderman, associate director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “But that would require the department to pick from hundreds of millions of monthly payments, and it could face immediate operational and legal hurdles.”

The debt ceiling will be raised eventually, allowing Treasury to pay late bills. But by then the damage to the global economy may already be done. Right now, foreign investors trust that loans to the United States will be paid back on schedule. If the federal government misses a payment on those loans, it will become more expensive for the country to borrow money. That could ripple out through the economy, potentially setting off a recession and raising costs for consumer loans such as mortgages, credit cards and car loans.

With no clear plan from Congress and potential default only days away, Treasury may soon face difficult decisions on what obligations, including Social Security payments, interest payments and military salaries, to honor.

About this story

Daily projections of federal revenues and expenses were provided to The Washington Post by the Bipartisan Policy Center.