At Berkshire Hathaway's annual shareholders meeting in 2011, billionaire investor Warren Buffett was asked what he thought about the contentious negotiations happening in Congress over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling. His response: failing to raise the debt ceiling would be a massive mistake.
"It would probably be the most asinine act that Congress has ever performed," Buffett said. In fact, "having a debt ceiling to start with is a mistake."
A decade later, the same problem is threatening to throw the economy into disarray. Though the Senate on Wednesday reached a last-minute deal to avert a government shutdown and keep federal funding going through early December, the clock is still ticking for lawmakers to raise or suspend the debt ceiling.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned this week that the country will run out of ways to pay its bills by Oct. 18.
Though the U.S. has never defaulted on its debt obligations and has raised or suspended the debt limit 78 times since 1960, the possibility of a default could be catastrophic for the global economy. The 2011 standoff resulted in Standard & Poor downgrading the country's credit rating for the first time from triple-A to AA-plus, sending the three major U.S. stock indexes tumbling in the days that followed.
The debt ceiling is the maximum amount of money that the U.S. Treasury can borrow in the form of bond sales. This money is used to pay for a wide-ranging number of financial obligations each month, including Social Security payments, Medicare reimbursements and other programs like tax refunds.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated in July that it needs to be raised from $22 trillion to $28.5 trillion. Yellen previously said that failing to do so would create "a historic financial crisis" that would result in "billions of dollars of growth and millions of jobs lost."
In 2011, Buffett said the recurring negotiations over the ceiling and threats of default were both unnecessary and time consuming.
"It just seems such a waste of time for a country that's got a lot of things to do," he said. "I'd love to see them eliminate the idea, because it results in these periodic stalemate operations where everybody uses it for posturing purposes."
Berkshire Hathaway did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Democrats currently want to suspend or increase the debt limit through legislation. However, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said that Democrats need to find a way to pass it without any support from the GOP. Senate Republicans this week blocked a Democratic bill which would have funded the government and suspended the debt ceiling at the same time.
Democrats argue that raising the ceiling will simply allow the U.S. Treasury to pay for spending and tax cuts that were greenlit during the Trump administration, while Republicans say they won't help lift the debt limit because of the Democrats' $3.5 trillion spending plan. Suspending or increasing the limit does not authorize any new spending.
The Republican opposition may force Democrats to lift the ceiling on their own as part of the spending package, which they plan to pass without the GOP through budget reconciliation. The process requires only a simple majority in the Senate split 50-50 by party.
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