Citizen Gifts To Reduce The Public Debt

Page one of The Washington Post from July 25, 2011.

One of the most memorable stories I wrote when I was an intern at The Washington Post in summer 2011 was this page one newsfeature about citizen gifts to reduce the public debt. That’s right: While Democrats and Republicans in Congress were in a tense standoff over whether to raise the government’s debt ceiling, Americans were sending in checks to help the government stay in business and avoid defaulting on its debt.

I found out about it in the simplest way one can get a story idea – by browsing the U.S. Treasury website. It was the 11th hour of Congress’s summer-long showdown over the debt ceiling (which ultimately cost the U.S. it’s triple-A credit rating). I was trying to look up some figures about the public debt, when I came across a curious disclosure on the website for the Treasury’s Bureau of Public Debt: “The Bureau of the Public Debt may accept gifts donated to the United States Government to reduce debt held by the public.”

Yup – while Congress was bickering over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling, it turned out that concerned citizens might be sending in gifts to the Treasury to pay down the public debt and prevent the U.S. from defaulting on its obligations. All they had to do was send a check to a P.O. Box in West Virginia.

I pitched this to my editors on the business desk and soon I was on the story. I soon came across a family in Iowa and retired teachers in Las Vegas who were sending in their hard-earned money to help pay down the public debt, not minding what a Sisyphean task that might be. That alone was a great story.

But when I called the Bureau of Public Debt for comment, the story got even better: It turned out that the money didn’t actually go directly toward paying down the public debt. Instead, the Treasury simply took the money and put it in its general fund, where it might well be spent on other programs.

Indirectly, that helps the government borrow less. But it was against the spirit of the 1961 law that created the gift-giving program.

A few weeks after the story ran, a Maryland Congressman, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D) introduced a law directing the government to use the gifts to reduce the public debt – not to pad its own checkbook.

But alas, like so many other pieces of legislation, the “Restoring Integrity to Public Debt Donations Act” got lost in Congressional deadlock and never became law.