Critics Raise a Red Flag Over the National Red Ink

IF you want some really big economic news, bigger than you can imagine, call (202) 219-3302 in Washington.

Ask anybody who answers for the daily national debt figure. Right. THE UNITED STATES NATIONAL DEBT. This numerical blockbuster can be defined as the total of previous annual deficits in the US federal budget all added together.

From President Truman to President Clinton, the national debt has grown disproportionate to national income because the government ``spends'' more than it takes into the national coffers.

On Sept. 1, a cheery voice at the above number - the office of the United States Commissioner of the Bureau of National Debt - said the national debt was $4,461,991,360,873.49. That is trillions of dollars, not to be mistaken for the grains of sand on a beach. With about a 255 million population in the US that means each citizen owes roughly $17,500. Howard Saltz, editor of the Tribune-Democrat newspaper in Johnston, Pa., was so concerned about the size of the national debt that he took action. Every day for the past year and a half he has published the amount of the debt on his editorial page.

``With 1,500 daily newspapers in the country,'' said Mr. Saltz in a telephone interview, ``my hope was that each paper would do the same thing. I thought that all together we could bring pressure on Congress to do something.''

But only a few other newspapers showed any interest in displaying the debt, and not a single congressman or senator jumped up to praise the newspaper. ``One friend of mine follows the debt closely, like a box score,'' says Mr. Saltz, ``but we haven't heard much from anybody else.'' The Tribune-Democrat has a daily circulation of around 48,000.

While the national debt more often than not increases on a daily basis, occasionally it does go down. ``The reason why the debt is there,'' says Peter Hollenbach, a spokesman for the Bureau of National Debt, ``is because the public debt is the sum total of the principal value of all outstanding Treasury bills. In other words, the government issue securities to finance deficits.''

During certain times of the year, as the government pursues its debt-management strategy with Treasury bill auctions, there can be days when more Treasury bills are coming due than the government issues. On those days the debt goes down.

The Bureau of National Debt has about 2,000 employees with an annual budget of $180 million. ``Our job is to issue and auction Ttreasury bills, notes, and bonds,'' says Mr. Hollenbach, ``and we administer the savings-bond program as well as account for the national debt. We think we are an efficient operation.''

Many economists insist that the federal debt, while not healthy for the economy, does not portend national financial ruin. It means that the economy grows more slowly because more federal money goes to paying interest on the debt.

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