Atanacio Garcia isn't waiting for Washington to reduce the national debt.
The 84-year-old retired postal worker from San Antonio, a man of simple means and a simple credo, donates $50 a month from his pension, plus whatever he makes from collecting aluminum cans in his neighborhood, to reduce Uncle Sam's IOU.
"I'm a believer in our country," said Garcia, an Army veteran who has promised that he will contribute "until the debt is paid off or until I die."
Garcia, a father of five who has lived in the same two-bedroom home for decades, is among hundreds of public-spirited Americans who have sent money, from pocket change to million-dollar checks, to the federal Bureau of Public Debt at P.O. Box 2188 in Parkersburg, W.Va.
Since President Kennedy signed legislation 50 years ago setting up the little-known program that accepts donations to pay down the debt, about $83 million has been collected, including $2,440.80 from Garcia.
While Congress generates widespread public disgust with its hyper-partisan fights over reducing the national debt — which this month surpassed $15 trillion —this tiny corps of debt-busters has quietly found a way to take a micro-stab at the problem, motivated by a sense of patriotism, not politics.
"God willing," Garcia pledged, "I will continue to do as much as I can for the country."
Donations have come from school bake sales and an Ohio woman who left $1.1 million from her estate. One note with a $300 gift said: "In completing my 1040 federal tax forms for 2010, I determined that I did not need to pay any federal income tax this year. I did not make very much money in 2010, but I still feel I should pay at least something to offset some of the benefits I receive as a citizen."
Eskimo Pie Corp. in the 1990s, when the debt was a piddling $4 trillion, pledged to donate toward debt reduction a nickel for every box of ice cream bars sold in a month; it offered the Treasury Department $71,894. The department, facing the prospect of counting all those nickels, told the company to send a check.
President Reagan donated $1 million in leftover private funds from his second inaugural in 1985.
For years, one man sent a check equal in dollars to his age. A veteran who wanted to express his gratitude for successful surgery at a VA hospital sent $17,500.
It doesn't seem to matter to the donors that five decades' worth of contributions does not even cover one day of interest on the nation's red ink. In fact, the debt is so high that it would take roughly a $48,000 contribution from every American to retire it.
For their gift to America, donors receive a thank-you note from the bureau for helping "ensure that we do not burden future generations with a huge debt."
Even though Congress has failed to devise a plan to reduce the deficit, that hasn't stopped lawmakers from offering ideas to get the public to chip in, such as establishing a checkoff box on income tax returns for donations.
Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) introduced the Debt Contribution Act this year to "facilitate patriotic Americans making contributions to pay down our debt." Stivers said he gives $700, or about 5%, of his monthly paycheck.
Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) recently introduced a bill to create a website to receive contributions and give donors the option of identifying themselves to be "recognized and thanked." The bill also is meant to needle millionaires who have come out in support of higher taxes on the wealthy.
One citizens' group, the Assn. to Reduce the National Debt, wants to raise at least $1 million to show that "the American people are serious about the debt crisis and demand real, immediate solutions to the problem," said New York attorney Seth Eisenberg, the founder.
Judy Goldschmidt, a Binghamton, N.Y., mother of three, sent $100 to the group to voice her frustration with Washington. "I really think it's important to make a statement," she said.
The Bureau of Public Debt does not release donors' names, but a spokeswoman said the donations have ranged from a single penny to $3.5 million. The patriotic sum of $17.76 also has been received.
Garcia began contributing in 2009 after growing tired of Washington's inaction. These days Garcia, who usually votes Democratic, is critical of both parties.
"It bothers me to see the Republicans and the Democrats fighting," he said, expressing disappointment with the failure last week of the bipartisan congressional "super committee" to meet its deadline to agree upon a debt reduction proposal. "They could think more about the nation and less about their party. … I do pray they come to their senses."
Those who know Garcia aren't surprised by his strong feelings about fiscal responsibility. He doesn't own a cellphone or a computer, and he and his wife wash their dishes by hand and dry their clothes on a line. He usually pays for the basics in cash — after clipping coupons. When scouring the neighborhood for cans to raise money for his debt donation, he also picks up trash.
Garcia's nephew, T.J. Garcia, said that his Tio Nacho is driven by a "deeply rooted religious faith and care for his fellow man."
But giving his hard-earned money to the federal government? Some would call that a foolhardy action.
When a group of millionaires this year called for raising taxes on the wealthy to reduce the debt, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, challenged them instead to contribute their own money. But the 200-member Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength didn't exactly rush to the bank.
"Some problems are too big to be solved except through collective effort and shared sacrifice, and this is one of them," the group responded in a letter to Hatch.
Hatch said he wasn't surprised that more people don't make contributions.
"Most American taxpayers understand that any debt the government has is owing to reckless government spending, and taxpayers have no desire to enable that bad habit," he said. "They would prefer to send their charitable contributions to their schools and churches, which will put the money to better use."
Avoiding any hurtful comments to debt donors, Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, an Arlington, Va., budget watchdog group, said that they generally seem to be "very well-intentioned, patriotic people who have a genuine concern for the fate of their country."
"However," he said, "it makes little sense to send a few bucks to the Treasury while we are hemorrhaging more than $1 trillion a year. " He advised would-be donors to devote themselves instead to demanding balanced-budget plans from Congress.
Atanacio Garcia agrees that his $50 monthly contribution is infinitesimal when weighed against the national debt. But he refuses to be discouraged and tries to persuade others to join him.
Atanacio Garcia's state House representative, Trey Martinez Fischer, was so moved by a letter he received from Garcia about his efforts that the lawmaker dug into his own pocket and sent $100 to the Bureau of Public Debt. Another friend, Patti Radle, a member of the San Antonio Independent School District board, contributed $20.
"I did warn him that that was all I was going to contribute," Radle said.
Garcia acknowledges that his is a lonely mission. "My wife doesn't agree with me."