Why the $1 Bill Hasn't Changed Since 1929

Recent years have seen the $5, $10, $20, and $50 redesigned. Even the defunct $2 bill got a facelift in 1976. 
Mark Blinch/Reuters

First Jackson got a bright green tinge, then Grant earned himself an American flag. Then Lincoln got a purple eagle, Hamilton was given the first line of the Constitution in swirly red text, and just last year, Franklin was given a color-changing bell.

But poor George Washington, the face of the $1 bill, hasn't gotten a makeover in more than 50 years. And thanks to a spending bill passed by Congress last week, he isn't likely to get an update anytime soon.

In the last 10 years, the Federal Reserve has redesigned the $5, $10, $20, and $50 bills, adding color and watermarks to prevent counterfeiting. But Congress and the president himself have pushed provisions in recent budgets to prevent the Treasury Department from spending any of its funds to give the $1 bill a new look, leaving Washington with the same design he's had since 1963, when "In God We Trust" was added to all Federal Reserve notes.

The last time the $1 had a real facelift was in 1929. Even the rare $2 bill has seen a more recent upgrade, with its 1976 makeover.

For the last several years, budgets composed by the president and Congress have included specific language preventing the Treasury Department from using its funds to redesign the $1 bill. That provision was also included in this month's omnibus spending bill.

The Federal Reserve redesigns currency largely to prevent counterfeiting, and $1 bills are not a frequent target. Would-be criminals are more often lured by larger bills, according to information provided to the Fed by the Secret Service and other law-enforcement agencies.

The vending industry has argued that the costs of redesigning its machines to recognize the new bills would be prohibitive. The National Automatic Merchandising Association estimated in 2008 that 20 million Americans use one of the nation's 7 million vending machines every work day.

Those concerns were instrumental in the Bush Administration's move to block the $1 bill from a makeover in the early 2000s.

"As long as the $1 bill is around, NAMA will work to preserve the current design of the bill, the same design we've had since 1929. Redesign would be very costly to our operator members. And equally important, we will work with the Federal Reserve to improve the quality of the circulating greenback," Thomas McMahon, then-senior vice president for the vending industry's top lobbying group, wrote in 2006.

NAMA declined to discuss its history of opposition to a redesign. But Eric Dell, the group's current senior vice president for government affairs, said in a statement Monday: "Should the Congress and or the [Bureau of Printing and Engraving] decide to move forward with a redesign, we would welcome the opportunity to assess the industry impact of any proposal and provide information at that time."

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Sarah Mimms is a staff writer for National Journal Hotline.

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