Defending the Bureau of Public Debt

Published 9:41 am Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The indignation was sorely misplaced. I speak of a recent job posting at the Bureau of the Public Debt, a part of the Treasury Department.

As it went, the bureau sought to hire a professional funnyman – a clown of sorts – to draw cartoons and teach its managers how to use humor to reduce stress and improve productivity in the workplace.

The posting ended up on the highly trafficked Drudge Report Web site. A consensus quickly formed in the media. The bureau was roundly mocked for misusing taxpayer dough.

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Then the politicians chimed in.

According to the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., courageously attacked the idea. He said it was among the most foolish spending he’d encountered – that the bureau should know there’s little that’s funny about today’s economic conditions.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. — because the bureau is headquartered in his state, he was asked to comment — said the government must be careful how it spends taxpayer dollars in tough economic times (and somehow, considering how much the government is spending lately, did so with a straight face).

But, as usual, the media and politicians are missing the real point.

The nearly 2,000 employees who work for the Bureau of the Public Debt have been working especially hard as of late.

When the government takes in less money in tax receipts than it spends — thus producing a deficit – the bureau must borrow to make up the difference.

After the Treasury Department determines how much borrowing is needed, the bureau issues and accounts for a variety of investment instruments, including Treasury bills, notes and bonds.

The bureau sells the bulk of its instruments by hosting comprehensive auctions through which investment houses, representing clients across the globe, bid on government debt.

In the 1990s, when our government was taking in more money than it was spending — producing a surplus — the bureau was busy enough. It ran an average of 140 auctions a year.

During the George W. Bush years, as Bush increased the debt $6 trillion, the bureau’s workload increased. In 2008, the bureau conducted 263 auctions to generate enough dough to keep the government running.

Now the bureau is in overdrive.

Already this year, our government has spent $1 trillion more than it has taken in. It’s on track to spend $2 trillion more than it takes in.

President Obama and Congress are just warming up. If they get their programs through, our deficit will continue running into the hundreds of billions a month for as far as the eye can see.

The bureau is right now conducting several auctions to cover the shortfall.

But it faces other challenges.

In addition to conducting the securities auctions, the bureau is tasked with helping other government agencies manage and process the billions in stimulus dough that is working its way through the system.

Politicians, under the gun for that money to show results, are pressing government agencies to work harder to distribute the dough.

The increased workload is causing bureau employees to work longer hours with short deadlines.

One bureau manager, trying to think outside the box, sought to bring in a professional funnyman to loosen things up.

The media got hold of the story and a great hue and cry resulted — a misplaced hue and cry.

How much could a temporary humor consultant cost? Five grand? Ten grand?

If only our politicians and the media were as indignant over the trillions in new debt our president and our Congress are ramming down our throats.

Rather than criticize the bureau for wanting to spend a pittance on a humor consultant, our politicians ought to be on their hands and knees, praising bureau employees for keeping our government afloat while they spend recklessly.

In fact, if the bureau deserves any criticism at all it would be this: Why spend a few extra grand to bring in a skilled funnyman when our government already has an abundance of such professionals?

We’ve got hundreds of clowns in Congress, and they’re already on the payroll.

Tom Purcell, a humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Visit Tom on the web at or e-mail him at