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Congress throws in good money after the bad

A report last week by National Public Radio makes you wonder exactly how serious Congress is about ferreting out wasteful government spending.

The report by NPR found that the federal government has more than $1.2 billion dollars that almost no one wants, and that it's adding to the tally with no end in sight.

The U.S. government has more than $1 billion in unused dollar coins stashed away in Federal Reserve vaults because nobody outside the D.C. Beltway wants to have anything to do with them.

And so, Congress, in its wisdom, has ordained that these coins will continue to be made, regardless of the fact that they're only marginally better received by the public than the flurry of direct mailings they get from legislators during election years.

What is prompting this blatant effort to throw good money after bad is Congress's remarkable proclivity for ignoring the desires of its market -- the people it is elected to serve. Three times Congress has made concerted efforts to push Americans to change their spending habits by replacing dollar bills with the more durable coins.

In every case, Americans have said no thanks. We'll stick with the greenbacks.

What's the old saying about doing the same thing again and again and again, but expecting different results? For individuals, it's insanity. For Congress, at times, it simply appears to be standard operating procedure.

And that is why, according to the NPR report, this dollar coin program could result in about $2 billion worth of the coins stuck to the side in Fed vaults by the time the program is over in 2016. Of course, that may be an optimistic estimate, since lawmakers could be inspired to extend it.

The coins that started production in 2007 are changed each quarter with the likeness of a different president. Starting with George Washington, they would go through every U.S. president until the end of the program.

Congress figured that the presidents would have more mass appeal than the latest flop of dollar coins, which featured Sacagawea. But with politics what they are, legislators decided that one out of every five coins on this series should continue to feature Sacagawea instead of the presidential image.

The fact is, Americans simply don't want them. Nothing against Susan B. Anthony, Sacagawea or the presidents who have taken their turns so far in this series, but if people aren't going to use them, what good are they?

Proponents argue that the federal government should make us go cold turkey on paper dollars, quit making them and take them out of circulation, the idea being that you'll use what's there if you have no other option. And they argue that it will be a money-saver in the long run because the coins are good for an average of three decades, while a dollar bill lasts an average of four years.

But the NPR report found that the financial upside in all this isn't for the consumer, but for -- and this will be a surprise -- the government. NPR cited a Government Accountability Office study last spring that said the net benefit to the federal government from a changeover would be $5.5 billion over 30 years.

But most of that comes from the profit the government would make from selling coins that it makes for 30 cents each to the public for a dollar apiece. Take out that profit, and the cost to taxpayers is $3.4 billion, which the Federal Reserve describes as "a revenue transfer from the private sector to the government." And that sounds suspiciously like a tax.

In any event, there's no reason to think these coins will suddenly catch fire. At the very least, Congress should cut production to a bare minimum. But it'd be better to just end this unpopular program and let the coin buck stop here.