A primer on the debt ceiling crisis

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, indicating the government would effectively reach its current $16.7 trillion debt ceiling in mid-October. (Sept. 17, 2013) Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images

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It was just over two years ago when Congress last fought about increasing the nation's borrowing limit. After that battle, Standard & Poor's downgraded the credit rating of the United States by one notch, and the S&P 500 stock index subsequently dropped by more than 17 percent.

Two years later, the economy and markets are in better shape, but that doesn't mean a fiscal battle would be welcomed by anyone.

Unfortunately, there could be a new round of debt ceiling fighting in the weeks ahead. In the last week of August, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, indicating the government would effectively reach its current $16.7 trillion debt ceiling in mid-October.

Both sides have drawn their respective lines in the sand, which means we should prepare for "Debt Ceiling: Part Deux."

A quick primer on a few basics:

--$1 trillion = $1,000 billion or $1,000,000,000,000 (that's 12 zeros).

--Annual surplus/deficit = money the government takes in minus the money the government spends. If the number is positive, there is a surplus; if it's negative, there is a deficit.

--Fiscal year 2012 U.S. deficit = $1.1 trillion

--Fiscal year 2013 budget deficit = $973 billion when proposed, but in its midyear update, the Congressional Budget Office said the deficit is expected to drop to $642 billion

--National debt = total amount borrowed over time to fund the annual deficit

--Current national debt (as of Aug. 1) = $16.7 trillion (or $52,943 for every person living in the United States, or $138,240 per taxpayer)

--The U.S. national debt has more than doubled since the year 2000. In May, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the fiscal year 2013 deficit would be $642 billion, or 4 percent of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). That is down from a deficit of 10.1 percent in 2009.

--The U.S. government has to borrow 43 cents of every dollar it currently spends, which is about four times the rate in 1980.

--Debt ceiling is the maximum amount of debt Congress allows for the government. The current debt ceiling is $16.7 trillion, effective since Jan. 31.

As the battle on the debt ceiling nears, it's important to underscore that Congress already has agreed to spend a certain amount of money, by virtue of the annual budgets that come to the floor for a vote.

After budget resolutions are passed, if the government cannot meet its obligations from revenue, it borrows money by selling bonds.

Increasing the debt limit does not authorize new spending commitments; rather, it allows the government to finance existing obligations that congresses and presidents have made.

The concept of a debt ceiling goes back to the early 20th century. During World War I, Congress put a limit on federal debt so the Treasury would have more discretion over borrowing. In the 1930s, Congress moved toward aggregate constraints on federal borrowing that allowed the Treasury greater ability to respond to changing conditions and more flexibility in financial management.

For decades, lawmakers increased the debt ceiling as a course of business. Since 1960, Congress has acted 78 separate times to permanently raise, temporarily extend or revise the definition of the debt limit under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

What happens if there is no deal to increase the debt ceiling? Without sufficient funds to pay the bills, the government must decide which payments come first. During the 2011 debt ceiling kerfuffle, the administration said it would pay the interest on its debt, Social Security benefits, Medicaid and Medicare payments, unemployment benefits and salaries for military personnel in action.

Other areas, like salaries of "nonessential" federal workers, Pell grants for college students, highway construction and education programs might all have to wait.

Additionally, ratings agencies such as Standard & Poor's would take a dim view on a protracted fiscal fight. The big difference between the last time this occurred and today is that interest rates already have begun to rise. Worries that the government battle could persist might push yields even higher, worsening the deficit problem by increasing required interest payments on the debt.

Now that you are an expert on the debt ceiling, maybe you can more confidently reach out to your representatives in Congress to urge them to make a deal on the debt before we hurtle off the fiscal cliff once more.

Jill Schlesinger, a certified financial planner, is a CBS News business analyst. She welcomes emailed comments and questions.

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