The politics of debt

    President Bush’s day trip this week to Parkersburg, W.Va., was eclipsed by larger news events, which is why we are revisiting that odd little jaunt here.

    An office of the Bureau of Public Debt is in Parkersburg. It’s there as part of Sen. Robert Byrd’s ongoing campaign to move the capital piecemeal to his home state. The bureau itself is part of the Treasury department, which is next door to the White House. The president could have accomplished the same mission by walking across the driveway, but that’s no fun.

    What’s special about the Parkersburg office is that it has – flanked by two potted plants – an ivory white, four-drawer FireKing model file cabinet with key-pad locks. And in that cabinet are 220 pieces of paper in three-ring binders. These pieces of paper are Treasury bonds representing the $1.7 trillion the federal government owes Social Security. The White House and Congress ran up that debt by spending excess Social Security revenues on regular government operations.

    Actually these are sort of faux bonds because the Treasury does everything electronically, but Congress makes the Bureau of Public Debt print these bonds so there is physical evidence. The actual debt exists as electrons, but what kind of photo-op would that make? Here the president actually got to handle a binder representing who knows how many billions of debt. Curiously, he doesn’t seem to have peeked.

    President Bush has been waging an increasingly uphill fight to sell his idea of adding personal retirement accounts. The purpose behind this particular visit was to suggest that the solvency of Social Security was a bunch of binders stashed in a file drawer in a remote West Virginia river town.

    Lest the point be lost, the president said later, “Imagine. The retirement security for future generations is sitting in a filing cabinet.”

    It would have been funny if, when the public debt people opened the file cabinet for the president, the drawer had been packed with bundles of cash. It would have been easy enough to do. After all, a sister agency prints the stuff.

    But while genial, the public debt folks don’t seem to be great practical jokers. This, after all, is an outfit that tracks the national debt to the penny – $4.5 trillion something and 68 cents as of Wednesday.

    The president stressed that his plan for private accounts would create “real assets for retirees,” the implication being, I guess, that you could go look at your savings, presumably in some more tangible form than electrons or a three-ring binder. And you wouldn’t have to go to Parkersburg to do it.

    Bush is giving Social Security reform the old college try, 108 events in just the last 30 days, but increasingly it is lonely work. Congressional Republicans are fading into the scenery on the issue, leaving the administration and several business groups to carry the load.

    It might have been frustration with his own people that caused the president to complain, “Now is the time for people in Congress to stop playing politics with the issue and come to the table with how they think it ought to be fixed.”

    Apparently jetting off in Air Force One to visit a file cabinet is not playing politics.

    Those binders may be just for show but the debt they represent is backed by “the full faith and credit” of the United States of America _ and that ought to stand for something.

    (Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)