WASHINGTON - Atanacio Garcia isn't waiting for Washington to reduce the national debt.
The 84-year-old retired postal worker from San Antonio, Texas, 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 Box 2188 in Parkersburg, W.Va.
Since President John F. 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 hyperpartisan fights over reducing the debt - which last month surpassed $15 trillion - this tiny corps of debt busters has quietly found a way to take a microstab at the problem, motivated by 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 Ronald Reagan donated $1 million in leftover private funds from his second inaugural in 1985.
For years, one man sent a check equal to his age. A veteran who wanted to express his gratitude for successful surgery at a VA hospital sent $17,500.
It does not 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 has not 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 to "facilitate patriotic Americans making contributions to pay down our debt." Stivers said he gives $700, or about 5 percent 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 Bureau of Public Debt does not release donors' names, but a spokeswoman said donations have ranged from a single penny to $3.5 million. They have also included the patriotic $17.76.