Americans shunned the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin. They kept mistaking it for a quarter. But, finally, 16 years after the government stopped minting it, stocks are running low. Rather than mint more, the Clinton administration says it’s open to considering a new dollar coin.
The sticking point, as always, is whether to do away with dollar bills. Though they get dirty, crumple quickly and cost a lot to replace, they are preferred by many Americans, who don’t like weighting down their pockets and purses with heavy coins.
Two years ago, top administration officials opposed the last serious effort in Congress to replace the dollar bill with a new gold-colored, smooth-edged coin. But now they’re showing more openness, at least to a new coin, if not to withdrawing the bill.
“As the Susan B. Anthonys run out, we may very well need to have new dollar coins,” Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin said Thursday.
A lot has changed in two years. For one thing, the once-immense stockpile of Susan Bs, bearing the likeness of the 19th century feminist, is running low.
According to Mint Director Philip N. Diehl, there are fewer than 170 million in the vaults. That’s about a 2-1/2-year supply if last year’s demand - 65 million - holds up.
The Mint struck 857 million from 1979 to 1981. They proved so unpopular that 550 million remained when production ended. For a long time, annual demand fluctuated between 10 million and 20 million. But lately it’s picked up, Diehl said.
The reason: Some metropolitan transit authorities are using them in bus fare boxes and change machines. And the U.S. Postal Service now dispenses and accepts them in 8,300 stamp vending machines. It continues to replace old machines with new machines that use the dollar coin.
The other change from two years ago is the ascension of the dollar coin’s chief congressional advocate, Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., to the chairmanship of the House Appropriations treasury subcommittee.
The subcommittee oversees the Mint and votes annually on the Treasury Department’s $11 billion budget.
“I’m not looking to bull this thing through,” said Kolbe, who first became interested in a gold-colored dollar coin in the late 1980s in response to queries from Arizona copper producers. “But obviously we have more of a forum.”
Kolbe says it would cost roughly eight cents to mint a coin, vs. four cents to print a bill. But the coin would last 30 years, compared with the 17-month life of an average dollar bill. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the savings at $400 million to $800 million over three decades.
But critics point out that the savings are predicated on public acceptance of the coin. And 75 percent of poll respondents reject the coin if it means eliminating the dollar bill, they said.
Even lawmakers attracted to the budget savings are leery of that. “The dollar bill is a symbol for the world and it’s also a cultural icon of the United States,” said Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, chair of the House Banking Committee. “One abandons it with great, great caution.”