Why should you care about the debt ceiling? Honestly, you shouldn't have to. Problem is Congress has turned the debate over raising it into a national drama.
And if lawmakers don't bring that drama to a speedy and smart end, all bets are off for the economy and markets.
That means Americans' savings, loans and general economic well-being could be collateral damage.
Oh fine, so what's the debt ceiling again? It's a cap set by Congress on how much the federal government may have in outstanding debt.
The cap applies to debt owed to the public (i.e., anyone who buys U.S. bonds) plus debt owed to federal government trust funds such as those for Social Security and Medicare.
Congress has always set some kind of limit on national debt, but the first modern version of it was set in 1917.
Today it's set at $16.699 trillion.
How often has Congress raised the debt ceiling? So often. On average, more than once a year. Since 1940, lawmakers have effectively approved 79 increases.
Sometimes they've raised it by small amounts, other times by large amounts. And sometimes they've raised it "temporarily" with provisions for a "snap-back" to a lower level.
Is it true that raising the debt ceiling gives Congress a "license to spend more"? No.
Raising the debt ceiling simply lets the Treasury borrow the money it needs to pay all U.S. bills and other legal obligations in full and on time.
Those bills are for services already performed and entitlement benefits already approved by Congress.
So raising the debt ceiling is more like a license to continue paying what the country owes. And the obligations are incurred because of countless decisions made by lawmakers from both parties over the years.
So, why does Congress even bother with a limit? In theory, setting a debt ceiling is supposed to help Congress control spending.
In reality it doesn't. Not meaningfully anyway, although there have been times when the debate has yielded some fiscal restraint.
The problem is the decision to raise the borrowing limit is usually divorced from lawmakers' legislative decisions that will necessitate future debt limit hikes.
It would be much better, budget experts say, to authorize debt limit increases at the same time that Congress passes bills to raise spending or cut taxes, both of which can add to deficits.
What's holding up Congress this time? Supporting a debt ceiling increase is always a tough vote for politicians, since their opponents will be sure to label them fiscally irresponsible.
And it's a tough vote because the minority party often tries to extract concessions from the majority in exchange for their support.
Many Republicans today are insisting that any increase in the debt ceiling be tied to spending cuts, a host of unrelated matters like the Keystone pipeline and, among some conservatives, the defunding and delay of the Affordable Care Act.