Orrin Hatch says you can send a few extra bucks along with your tax return. Is that true?

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April 19 2011 5:06 PM

Uncle Sam Wants You ... or at Least Your Spare Change

Can you donate money to the federal government?

Tax form. Click image to expand.
A tax form

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch says wealthy Americans who think their tax bill is too low should send a voluntary donation to the federal government. Over the weekend, he quipped, "There's still time before the filing deadline for them to give Uncle Sam some more money." Can you really write the United States a check?

Absolutely—just don't send it to the IRS. There are several ways for charitable patriots to augment their support for the federal government, but sending a little extra something with their tax payment isn't one of them. When the IRS receives checks for more than an individual owes, it simply refunds the money. The agency recommends that you send your donation to the Treasury's Bureau of the Public Debt. Your money will go into a special account to redeem outstanding government notes, bills, and bonds. Since 1996, Americans have donated about $26 million to reducing federal indebtedness, which represents 0.00018 percent of the current national debt. By the way, there's no need to wait for tax time; the Treasury accepts contributions year-round.

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Incidentally, there's a special program through which members of the House of Representatives can dedicate a portion of their salaries to reducing the debt. In 2010, three house members donated $15,233.56, which represents 0.02 percent of the total salary of the House and 0.00000011 percent of the national debt.

The fund to reduce the debt isn't the only giving opportunity. The most venerable tradition is to send a check to the Gifts to the United States fund, which was established in 1843. The money goes into the Treasury's general fund. Of course, the distinction between giving to the general fund and donating to reduce the federal debt is largely symbolic, because the donations are fungible.

Those who don't trust the spendthrifts at the Treasury with an unrestricted donation can direct a gift to a select number of federal agencies. There's no exhaustive list of agencies authorized to accept charity, but a 1963 government memo offers a few possibilities, or you can check out the itemized list of gifts received last year (PDF).

Outdoorsy types might consider donating to the Forest Service or the National Park Service. The Library of Congress will appeal to bookish donors, as might the Department of Education. Science seems to be a big draw: The National Science Foundation took in the largest haul of donations in 2010 with more than $54 million, followed closely by the National Institutes of Health at $51 million. The military will also take cash. Or if you're interested in supporting our fighting men and women, but not in subsidizing warfare, donate to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

If you aren't sure whether your favorite federal agency can take your money, call the Government Accountability Office.* Agencies not authorized to receive gifts must turn over donations to the Treasury's general fund.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Matthew Anderson of the Treasury Department and Sara L. Eguren of the IRS. Thanks also to reader Ryan Schilling for asking the question.

*Correction, April 20, 2011: This sentence originally incorrectly identified the Government Accountability Office as the General Accountability Office.

Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.