Politicians in Washington hardly let a few minutes go by without mentioning how broke the government is. So, it’s a little surprising that they’ve created a stash of more than $1 billion that almost no one wants.
Unused dollar coins have been quietly piling up in Federal Reserve vaults in breathtaking numbers, thanks to a government program that has required their production since 2007.
And even though the neglected mountain of money recently grew past the $1 billion mark, the U.S. Mint will keep making more and more of the coins under a congressional mandate.
The pile of idle coins, which so far cost $300 million to manufacture, could double by the time the program ends in 2016, the Federal Reserve told Congress last year.
A joint inquiry by NPR’s Planet Money and Investigations teams found that the coins are the wasteful byproducts of a third, failed congressional effort to get Americans to use one-dollar coins in everyday commerce.
It was easier for the bill’s sponsor, then-Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE), to move the presidential coin bill forward if it didn’t displace other dollar coins honoring Sacagawea, the teenage Native American guide to Lewis and Clark.
The deal: The mint would be required to make a quota of Sacagawea coins. Currently, the law says 20 percent of dollar coins made must have Sacagawea on them.
But don’t worry, folks. They’re the government, and they know what they’re doing.
A Government Accountability Office study out this spring says that switching to a dollar coin “would provide a net benefit to the government” of about $5.5 billion over 30 years.
But it’s not because coins are cheaper. The report says the government would not recover the cost of switching from bills to coins over that period.
Instead, the benefit to the government would come only from the profit it makes by manufacturing each coin for 30 cents and selling it to the public for a dollar.
When this profit, known as seigniorage, is factored out, switching to the dollar coin would actually cost taxpayers money over three decades, according to a Federal Reserve analysis of the GAO’s figures. The cost works out to $3.4 billion.
Oh…so it’s a profit deal.