Donors throw their money at debt problem

Gifts actually go to Treasury fund; some feel deceived

By Cezary Podkul
Washington Post / July 26, 2011

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WASHINGTON - As President Obama and Congress struggle to tame the nation’s runaway borrowing, a stream of checks, cash, and even gold coins is pouring into a post office box in West Virginia where, for years, people who want to help pay down the national debt have been able to send gifts.

“I love my country. I don’t want it in debt like this. I don’t want it having a financial crisis,’’ said Jane Olive, a retired teacher in Las Vegas who sent $100 to the box this month.

But the contributions don’t specifically go to pay off existing debt. The government deposits them in the Treasury Department’s general fund, in essence the government’s main checking account.

“The gifts go toward funding the federal government, not to pay off the debt,’’ said Mckayla Braden, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of the Public Debt.

Since the contributions can reduce the amount of money the government would otherwise have to borrow to cover its expenses, federal officials stress they are complying with the 50-year-old law enabling the public to give gifts to lower the debt. “The government doesn’t have to borrow more,’’ Braden said.

In soliciting donations on its website, the bureau says simply: “How do you make a contribution to reduce the debt?’’ It provides two options: online payment and the address of the Post Office box.

Some contributors feel misled.

“I’m very disappointed,’’ Olive said after learning from a reporter that her gift will go into the general fund. She had felt so strongly about helping get the United States out of hock that she had e-mailed friends and relatives, urging them to make similar donations. Some did. But now, she said, “I can’t encourage my friends to sacrifice extra money.’’

Chuck Landenberger, 79, a retired postal worker in Hawaii whose father lobbied Congress to pass the law enabling the public to make the gifts, was also dismayed.

“There should not be that money available for the Congress to spend after the contributor has said, ‘I want it to reduce the debt,’ ’’ he said.

Since President Kennedy signed the law into effect in June 1961, people have donated about $81.7 million to help retire the public debt, federal records show. The gifts are tax-deductible and can be submitted electronically or via mail to PO Box 2188 in Parkersburg, W.Va., which is maintained by the Bureau of the Public Debt’s Parkersburg office.

About 30 to 50 gifts come into the Post Office box each month, said Kimberley Krupinski, supervisor of accounts receivable at the Parkersburg office. The average gift is less than $500.

The donations are often accompanied by letters, such as one from a war veteran expressing gratitude for a successful surgery, and another from an immigrant expressing thanks to his adopted country, Krupinski said.

“A lot of them are doing it out of patriotism and their love for America,’’ she added.

In return, donors get a thank-you letter from the bureau, saying, “Your contribution will help ensure that we do not burden future generations with a huge debt.’’ No specifics are offered about how the money is used.