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Can proposal start national debate?

The idea of making U.S. coinage out of steel has surfaced again in the form of legislation introduced April 24 in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Steve Stivers of the 15th district of Ohio.

He calls for cents, nickels, dimes and quarters to be struck in the metal, not just the cent and the nickel, both of which cost more to manufacture than their face values.

In the press release issued by his office, he cites $433 million of cost savings to be achieved over a 10-year period following the adoption of steel use for coinage.

Further, he says using steel will allow the Mint to buy an American made material and eliminate imports of copper, zinc and nickel, which are mostly imported from Canada.

Most Americans are not averse to having the government save some money to cut back the deficit. Most probably are equally in favor of preserving American jobs in the steel industry.

The last line of the press release points out that the legislation has the support of the American Iron and Steel Institute.

Notably absent though, is an endorsement by the National Automatic Merchandising Association – the vending machine industry – whose support is critical for any composition change to American coinage.

Does that mean the legislation is simply a cheap way for an individual congressman to win brownie points from his constituents? Could be.

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The fact that only two other representatives are co-sponsoring the bill, and both are also from Ohio, is another indication that the purpose is more political theater than a serious effort to end seven years of delay in coming up with an answer to the rising costs of striking coins. So more losses will be incurred by the Mint in the production of cents and nickels.

But could it be political theater that ultimately will help make a difference?

Sooner or later coin composition change has to come. Little progress has been made since 2006, when costs began to exceed face value for the cent. In 2010 the Mint was required to produce a study that was delivered to Congress in December. After a couple of years to do it, the Mint pleaded for more time.

That extra time should give other members of Congress the opportunity to weigh in with their own pet solutions. Perhaps we should allow a large and wealthy firm like Apple or Exxon Mobil to put their ads on cents to defray production costs. Or better yet, let them manufacture advertising tokens that can be used instead of cents.

This would take us back to where we were during the Civil War, but it would satisfy three needs: those who want change to the last cent will still get it, the Mint can stop production of a money-losing denomination and the firm that takes over production of the new cent tokens will get the attention it wants.

Whether we get steel coinage eventually is less important than beginning a national conversation about what coins are needed and what they should be made of.


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