Congress raises limit again as U.S. debt nears $10 trillion
By Rob Hotakainen | McClatchy Newspapers
October 1, 2007

WASHINGTON — As the national debt heads for the $10 trillion mark, generous Americans are sending checks to the federal government.

Donations to the Bureau of the Public Debt have topped $2.5 million so far this year. That's the highest amount since at least 1996.

It's not making much of a dent, though.

For the fifth time since 2001, Congress is raising the debt limit, increasing it by $850 billion to $9.815 trillion. The Senate approved the plan on a 53-42 vote Thursday night. The House of Representatives has already signed off on the plan, without a direct vote.

That's $9,815,000,000,000.00.

According to the folks who follow this stuff closely, the national debt has been rising by an average of $1.36 billion per day since September of last year.

And each citizen now has a share of nearly $30,000.

But Congress has an easy solution to deal with the mounting red ink. Instead of fretting over it, members simply allow the government to borrow more money, much to the consternation of some critics.

"American families don't have the luxury Congress has," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who opposed the increase. "They can't get a new loan or new credit cards after they have maxed out their capability to borrow. Yet instead, every day in this body we do essentially that."

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. , said Congress had to approve more borrowing by early October or the government wouldn't be able to pay its bills.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who heads the Senate Budget Committee, said the national debt "has exploded" as a result of President Bush's tax cuts, forcing the federal government to borrow more money abroad. He said the United States is "in hock" to Japan, owing more than $600 billion, and China, owing more than $400 billion. He said the rising debt comes at the worst possible time, right before a flood of baby boomers retires, but that Congress has no choice but to raise the debt ceiling.

"If we fail to act in a timely way on raising the debt limit, the creditworthiness of all United States instruments would be called into question," Conrad said. "That could have a very severe effect on already shaky financial markets."

Bush's supporters say the president has had little choice but to rack up more debt to pay for two wars because he inherited a weakened economy in 2001.

Coburn said it's irresponsible to raise the debt limit while Congress creates or expands federal programs that will result in additional borrowing. He said his colleagues for years have "raided the Social Security and Medicare trust funds to hide the true size of the annual budget deficit" and that it's time for Congress to reduce spending.

"We have been on notice since that time that we needed to make the effort to rein in wasteful Washington spending so that we do not have to, in fact, borrow more money against our children's future," he said. "Only 10 years ago it was $5.95 (trillion). We have increased the debt in the last 10 years by 50 percent."

Until the early 1960s, people couldn't donate money to the federal government with a specific use in mind. When a Texas woman wanted to contribute money specifically to lower the debt, she got Congress to pass a law creating a special fund for gifts. Since then, thousands of Americans have contributed, donating $1.6 million last year alone. In 2006, a 98-year-old Ohio woman donated her $1.1 million estate.

Pete Hollenbach, the bureau's spokesman, said the names and addresses of donors are kept secret because of privacy concerns. Most of the donations are modest, with people sending checks of $25 to $50 as they express a desire to both reduce the debt and give a little something back to their country. Hollenbach said donations usually peak during tax season.

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