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Congressional Research Service: The Federal Debt: An Analysis of Movements from World War II to the Present

Author: Mindy R. Levit
September 17, 2011


Mindy R. Levit traces historical patterns of federal debt cause and effect.

Financing the obligations of the United States has always been a central concern of Congress and the President. If policy decisions and economic conditions lead to levels of government spending which exceed revenue collection, the government will incur debt. Levels of federal debt are reported in terms of debt held by federal government accounts (intragovernmental), and gross (total) federal debt. Debt held by the public is the total amount the federal government has borrowed from the public and remains outstanding. Intragovernmental debt is the amount owed by the federal government to other federal agencies. Gross federal debt is composed of debt held by the public and intragovernmental debt.

Movements in federal debt occur over time. Historical trends can be useful in synthesizing how policy and the economy affect the debt outlook. In most years, debt held by the public has increased on a nominal basis. Nominal measures of debt, however, do not control for inflation. As long as the economy grows faster than the debt, the debt will become less burdensome relative to the economy as a whole. Measuring debt as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) controls for effects such as inflation and economic growth, allowing for comparisons over time.

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