News reports have jumped the gun in declaring it, lawmakers and staffers on Capitol Hill are awaiting it with a morbid glee, and some congressional aides suspect the government's slow-walking it.
It, in this case, is the nation's public debt, which has hovered just short of $13 trillion for days now, according to the obscure Treasury Department website that tracks this sort of thing.
The site updates every business day with the previous business day's total debt, right down to the penny, and has been within reach of $13 trillion for this entire week. The figure for Tuesday - the most recent available - stood at $12,995,779,490,444.52.
That's led some Republican congressional staffers to question whether the clock hadn't stalled out just below the Big 13, though Treasury says the site is being updated the same way it always has been.
Still, some private "debt clock" websites already have tolled the magic number, which several press outlets have reported and lawmakers have fired off statements on. One senator complained of "an unprecedented level of irresponsibility" in hitting the milestone.
Joyce Harris, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of the Public Debt, said she'd seen the press reports, but said they're based on private estimates and, according to the government, we're not there just yet.
"It's not an official number," she said. "The number for the debt is $12.995 trillion."
At that level, it amounts to more than $42,000 for every U.S. resident.
Part of the confusion is that Treasury only reports once a day, while outside calculations estimate the rise by the second, based on formulas that oftentimes go too high, too fast. They often have to reel those numbers back in after Treasury reports the actual figure -and there are even some days the debt drops, ever so slightly, because more old bills or bonds are cashed than are issued.
Still, the number has been on a steady rise as of late.
Ed Hall's www.brillig.com/ debt_clock topped $13 trillion on Monday, but he dropped his clockback below that figure Wednesday afternoon. Meanwhile, USDebtClock.org topped $13 trillion on Wednesday, prompting several news reports and statements from Congress.
The fascination with $13 trillion far outstrips the significance of that particular number. But with Congress poised to pass bills spending tens of billions of dollars this week, the debt has gotten wrapped up in the debate.
The Republicans on the Joint Economic Committee are using their Twitter feed to give daily updates, and said that since President Obama took office, the debt has increased at a rate of $4.8 billion a day, or nearly three times the daily average of the Bush administration.
The debt passed the $12 trillion mark less than 200 days ago, and if the $13 trillion mark is hit in the next eight weeks, it will be the second-fastest $1 trillion jump in history. The fastest trillion came in late 2008 and early 2009, when the Wall Street bailout rapidly ballooned the debt from $11 trillion to $12 trillion.
Earlier this year, Congress and Mr. Obama raised the country's debt limit to $14.3 trillion, hoping it would to give the government enough room to spend through the end of this year.
Total public debt includes two pots of money. One is normal government debt held in the hands of consumers, such as Treasury bills and bonds, while the other is intragovernmental holdings, or money one part of the government borrows from another agency. That includes money borrowed from the Social Security trust funds.
Some analysts said the key figure is not the total public debt, but the debt held by the public, which stood at $8.478 trillion on Tuesday.
Rudy Penner, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office who is now at the Urban Institute, said in many ways, the debt number is so divorced from spending that it obfuscates the debate. He said the debt debate should be coupled with the spending debate, so lawmakers can couple the red ink with the policies that cause it.
Congress has yet to produce a budget this year for fiscal year 2011, which begins Oct. 1, and Mr. Penner said that's a key failure that should be getting more attention.
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