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The congressional politics of pennies, also nickels

May 10, 2008 |  2:28 am

Much of the news these days concerns people who already hold elective office but want to hold another one. Those guys and gal are senators.

This item concerns representatives who, everybody knows, aren't worth as much. For one thing, there's a lot more of them. And appaA bunch of pennies like the ones some congressmen are spending a lot of to dictate to the U.S. Mint how to make penniesrently with the recent resolutions of the nation's economic and housing crises, rising gas prices, educational quality, Iraq war, Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the Myanmar cyclone, food price problems and shortages of rice, there isn't much for these representatives to do these warming spring days in the nation's capital.

So here's a quick update on the labors of some of those elected officials left behind in Washington to take care of the nation's pressing business.

There's a whole bunch of congressmen spending a whole bunch of their time and our money dictating exactly how the U.S. Mint should go about making U.S. coins. Isn't that what the U.S. Mint was minted to do?

America's Great Penny Crisis moved one step closer to resolution (of sorts) this week, when the House passed a bill to....

...change the metallic composition of the one-cent coin. We've all been waiting for this one.

Supporters of the measure, approved by voice vote, say it will save taxpayers more than $1 billion in production costs over the next decade by allowing the U.S. Mint to switch to less-expensive metals.

It currently costs 1.7 cents to produce every penny and 10 cents for every nickel, which is the kind of economic thinking that makes sense in Washington.

The bill also would require the mint to begin churning out a primarily steel penny within 270 days of it becoming law.

It takes two nickels to make one nickel and they think that makes sense in the District of Columbia

Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio) sponsored the bill. But two Illinois congressmen had roles in shaping it: Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat who chaired the subcommittee hearings on the bill, and Rep. Peter Roskam, a Republican who sponsored a similar bill last year that this measure mirrored in several respects. Both urged and celebrated the bill's passage.

"If we continue minting coins with the current metal content," Gutierrez said on the House floor this week, "with each new penny and nickel we issue, we will also be contributing to our national debt by almost as much as the coin is worth. These losses are mounting rapidly, and we need to act immediately to lower the costs of producing the penny and the nickel."

Roskam touted the bill's similarity to his penny legislation in a press release. "Congress today took a step in the right direction by reining in one of the billions of dollars in wasteful government spending programs," he said. "Albeit a small step, it marks a common sense solution that will save the hard-earned dollars of Illinois families."

They do love those small steps back there.

Notably opposing the bill was the U.S. Mint, which complained it doesn't give enough power to the Treasury to regulate coin composition and that the 270-day steel-penny window is unrealistically short. Mint Director Edmund Moy called the rest of the bill overly "prescriptive and limiting" in a letter to Congress this week.

A penny for your thoughts on this.

--Jim Tankersley

Jim Tankersley writes for the Swamp of the Chicago Tribune's Washington Bureau.    

Photo Credit: U.S. Mint