Senators have spent nearly a week debating spending-cut amendments that would cover the cost of the unemployment-insurance bill, but it turns out they could save more than twice as much money in one fell swoop.
The $1 coin — the rarely used, much-maligned gold dollar often featuring Sacagawea or Martha Washington — could save the federal government $13.8 billion over 30 years if the government stopped producing paper dollars, according to the Dollar Coin Alliance. The advocacy group, led by former Reps. Jim Kolbe of Arizona and Tim Penny of Minnesota, is pushing for a switch from bills to coins as a solution to the unemployment insurance bill's cost-offset debate.
Although coins cost more to produce, they last longer than paper bills. A new $1 bill lasts only about 4.7 years before being taken out of circulation, according to the Federal Reserve. Coins, meanwhile, can be used for decades. And because the U.S. Mint has already been producing dollar coins for years, it has already made much of the initial investment, said Shawn Smeallie, executive director of the Dollar Coin Alliance.
"The reason we're pushing this on the Hill right now is [that] all the amendments that try to pay for this cut a program or pay a tax," Smeallie said. "You can do this without doing any of that. Our point is, it's in range of the savings and you're not hurting anybody."
Despite the savings, the alliance has found little support. Even lawmakers who generally favor switching to the dollar coin are wary of using 30-year savings to pay for a three-month unemployment-insurance extension.
Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., has no plans to include the dollar coin in an amendment to the unemployment-insurance bill because of the time it would take to save the money, said spokesman Daniel Head.
And the Heritage Foundation, which supports a spending-cut amendment to the bill, favors reducing federal pensions or limiting automatic pay increases for federal employees, said labor policy analyst James Sherk.
Perhaps quick-fix coins weren't meant to be. In January 2013, the idea of a $1 trillion platinum coin offered to bypass the debate over the federal debt ceiling. That idea also did not come to fruition.
The dollar coin is a more plausible idea, and may even eventually come to life independent of the unemployment insurance bill. House and Senate versions of the Currency Optimization, Innovation, and National Savings Act were referred to committees last year.
Meanwhile, Smeallie thinks Americans are simply being stubborn about switching to a dollar coin. The U.S., he said, is lagging behind while Canada, the United Kingdom, and much of Europe uses coins for up to two units of each currency.
The reason the country is leaving $13.8 billion on the table is simple, Smeallie said: "Inertia. Americans don't like change," he said. "We were worried about going to digital TV."
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Jack Fitzpatrick is a staff correspondent at National Journal. He has previously written for USA TODAY, NBCNews.com, Slate, The Arizona Republic and other newspapers and websites. He graduated from Arizona State University with a master's degree in mass communication and a bachelor's degree in journalism.