US Debt Ceiling History

HUD Secretary Julian Castro standing in front of a chart showing the US national debt
HUD Secretary Julian Castro Testifies To House Financial Services Committee on Department's Accountability. Alex Wong / Getty Images

The United States debt ceiling is the maximum amount of money that the federal government is allowed to borrow to meet its existing legal financial obligations, including Social Security and Medicare benefits, military salaries, interest on the national debt, tax refunds, and other payments. The U.S. Congress sets the debt limit and only Congress can raise it.

As government spending increases, Congress is required to raise the debt ceiling.

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the failure of Congress to raise the debt ceiling would result in “catastrophic economic consequences,” including forcing the government to default on its financial obligations, something that has never happened. A government default would certainly result in the loss of jobs, erode the savings of all Americans and place the nation in a deep recession.

Raising the debt ceiling does not authorize new government spending obligations. It simply allows the government to pay its existing financial commitments as previously approved by Congress and the President of the United States.

The history of the U.S. debt ceiling dates back to 1919 when the Second Liberty Bond Act helped finance the United States' entry into World War I. Since then Congress has raised the statutory limit on the amount of U.S national debt dozens of times.

Here's a look at the debt ceiling history from 1919 to 2013 as based on White House and congressional data.

Note: In 2013, the No Budget, No Pay Act suspended the debt ceiling. Between 2013 and 2015, ​the Treasury Department extended the suspension twice. On October 30, 2015, the suspension of the debt ceiling was extended to March 2017.

  • May 2013 - $16.699 trillon 
  • July 2011 -$16.394 trillion 
  • February 2010 - $14.294 trillion
  • December 2009 - $12.394 trillion
  • February 2009 - $12.104 trillion
  • October 2008 - $11.315 trillion
  • July 2008 - $10.615 trillion
  • September 2007 - $9.815 trillion
  • March 2006 - $8.965 trillion
  • November 2004 - $8.184
  • May 2003 - $7.384 trillion
  • June 2002 - $6.4 trillion
  • August 1997 - $5.95 trillion
  • March 1996 - $5.5 trillion
  • August 1993 - $4.9 trillion
  • April 1993 - $4.37 trillion
  • November 1990 - $4.145 trillion
  • October 1990 - $3.23 trillion
  • November 1989 - $3.1227 trillion
  • August 1989 - $2.87 trillion
  • September 1987 - $2.8 trillion
  • August 1987 - $2.352 trillion
  • July 1987 - $2.32 trillion
  • October 1986 - $2.3 trillion
  • August 1986 - $2.111 trillion
  • December 1985 - $2.0787 trillion
  • November 1985 - $1.9038 trillion
  • October 1984 - $1.8238 trillion
  • July 1984 - $1.573 trillion
  • May 1984 - $1.52 trillion
  • November 1983 - $1.49 trillion
  • May 1983 - $1.389 trillion
  • September 1982 - $1.2902
  • June 1982 - $1.1431 trillion
  • September 1981 - 1.0798 trillion
  • September 1981 - $999.8 billion
  • February 1981 - $985 billion
  • December 1980 - $935.1 billion
  • June 1980 - $925 billion
  • September 1979 - $879 billion
  • April 1979 - $830 billion
  • August 1978 - $798 billion
  • October 1977 - $752 billion
  • June 1976 - $700 billion
  • March 1976 - $627 billion
  • November 1975 - $595 billion
  • February 1975 - $577 billion
  • June 1974 - $495 billion
  • December 1973 - $475.7 billion
  • October 1972 - $465 billion
  • March 1972 - $450 billion
  • March 1971 - $430 billion
  • June 1970 - $395 billion
  • April 1969 - $377 billion
  • June 1967 - $358 billion
  • March 1967 - $336 billion
  • June 1966 - $330 billion
  • June 1965 - $328 billion
  • June 1964 - $324 billion
  • November 1963 - $315 billion
  • May 1963 - $309 billion
  • July 1962 - $308 billion
  • March 1962 - $300 billion
  • June 1961 - $298 billion
  • June 1960 - $293 billion
  • June 1959 - $295 billion
  • September 1958 - $288 billion
  • February 1958 - $280 billion
  • July 1956 - $278 billion
  • August 1954 - $281 billion
  • June 1946 - $275 billion
  • April 1945 - $300 billion
  • June 1944 - $260 billion
  • April 1943 - $210 billion
  • March 1942 - $125 billion
  • February 1941 - $65 billion
  • June 1940 - $49 billion
  • December 1939 - $45 billion
  • December 1919 - $43 billion