In the not too distant future, your pocket change could include some Ronald Reagan dimes.
Rep. Mark Souder (R., Ind.), introduced legislation last month to replace the profile of Franklin D. Roosevelt on the dime with Reagan’s. Since then, his bill has gathered 80 Republican cosponsors, and is backed by almost every major GOP House leader, including Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, House Majority Leader Tom Delay, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, and Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier.
But the legislation may not even be needed. Congressional action isn’t necessary to change the faces on U.S. coins, because the U.S. Mint can decide administratively to change them. There is no legislation requiring the individual being honored on a coin be dead, either.
But putting Reagan on the dime while he’s alive would overturn 211 years of coinage tradition, according to Beth Deisher, editor of Coin World. She points out that George Washington, during his lifetime, declined to have his portrait on our first coins or on any form of money, saying that would induce the trappings of monarchy.
Deischer says collectors had a cool reception to the appearance of still-living Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s on a commemorative $1 coin in 1995. (The Mint also produces commemorative medals, as opposed to coins, that often feature living people. Currently living individuals honored on these medals include Ronald and Nancy Reagan, General Henry H. Shelton, Navajo Code Talkers, the Little Rock Nine, Pope John Paul II, Rosa Parks, Gerald and Betty Ford, and Reverend Billy and Ruth Graham.)
She adds that the treasury department is traditionally averse to change.
“There is a law on the books that the treasury has virtually ignored, which recommends a change in designs after a design has been in circulation for 25 years,” Deisher says. “Instead, they only do it when Congress orders them to, because coin designs have become so political.”
She points to a change coming up next year, featuring explorers Lewis and Clark on the nickel for 2004 and 2005. This has spurred an angry reaction from Virginians, who want Thomas Jefferson and Monticello returned to the nickel as soon as possible and to remain there in perpetuity.
But Grover Norquist, the chairman of the Reagan Legacy Project, thinks that the treasury will be ready to put Reagan on at least half of the dimes minted in the (sadly) not-too-distant future when Reagan passes on.
“Within a few days of Reagan passing away, we will have enough signatures to get the treasury to act on their own,” Norquist says. “For a while we’ve been asking, ‘what is the thing we should do to honor Reagan when he passes away?’ Putting on half the dimes would be a big one…. Souder’s bill just shows there’s a popular political movement for this, and it makes it easier for treasury to do it.”
Norquist rejects the idea that changing the dime would dishonor FDR.
“When we put Kennedy on the half dollar, we dropped Ben Franklin,” he says. “That wasn’t dissing Ben Franklin. Before we had FDR, we had Lady Liberty. Taking her off doesn’t mean we’re against Lady Liberty. If you’re a great president, and you have been on a dime for more than 50 years, it’s not like that’s some sort of national disgrace, for crying out loud.”
Rep. Jim McGovern (D., Mass.), isn’t a fan of Souder’s legislation, which calls for a complete, permanent changeover from Roosevelt to Reagan, so he’s introduced a bill to keep FDR on the coin, and has so far gathered 52 cosponsors.
McGovern says he’s not opposed to paying tribute to Reagan, who he says “served this country with distinction.” But McGovern says he “couldn’t believe” someone would consider taking FDR off the dime.
“I’m not quite sure that to honor Reagan you have to dishonor Roosevelt,” McGovern says. “I kind of wonder if this is alluding to an attack on a man who thought government could be a force for good. To be honest with you, I don’t know if any historian who wouldn’t put FDR in our nation’s top-three presidents of all time… I thought it was important to introduce my bill to let them know we’re not going to go quietly on this one.”
“McGovern’s bill is a logical response from a true liberal,” Souder says. “I believe FDR deserves tribute as well, and having already talked to Jim about this once, I have a feeling we can talk this through and get some sort of agreement.”
Souder says he thinks his bill will get many more supporters if an agreement to keep FDR on some dimes is worked out–although he did point out, “a couple of guys, maybe ten or so, said they wanted to knock FDR off the dime. But most guys aren’t spoiling for a fight on Reagan verses FDR, and I don’t think the Democrats really want that either.”
The likelihood of a compromise version became even more likely after Nancy Reagan released a brief statement rejecting the idea of removing Roosevelt.
“While I can understand the intentions of those seeking to place my husband’s face on the dime, I do not support this proposal and I am certain Ronnie would not,” Mrs. Reagan said Friday. “When our country chooses to honor a great president such as Franklin Roosevelt by placing his likeness on our currency, it would be wrong to replace him with another.”
A Reagan dime is sure to stir some complaints from his old detractors that he’s getting too many things named after him–an aircraft carrier, airport, and a federal building among the most visible ones. But Norquist points out that right now there are about 60 streets, buildings and schools named after Reagan, compared to about 600 for President John F. Kennedy and 800 for Martin Luther King.
“Our goal is to do at least that well,” Norquist says.
Souder sees this as a great money-making opportunity–no pun intended–for the U.S. Mint. The Mint is self-funding, mostly by selling commemorative coins, collections of historical coins. and other collectables, and sends surplus revenues to the treasury.
“They will make a lot of money from these coins from collectors if we get an agreement to, say, put Reagan on half of the dimes for the first ten years after his death,” Souder says.
Coin collectors definitely like new designs on coins, Deisher says.
“We have been in the longest period in our history without changes,” she says. “For the better part of 50 years, the mindset at the U.S. treasury was that the public would not accept changes on the designs of coins, and that the designs were time honored. Well, the enthusiastic reaction to the state quarters blew that out of the water.”
She points out that her magazine Coin World has long advocated new designs for all coins whose designs have been in circulation for 25 years. But she also wants Congress and the public to question whether presidential portraits should “continue to dominate our circulating coinage. As we go forward in our third century of coinage, the subjects to be depicted as well as the artistic merits of our circulating coin designs need to be discussed and planned in a rational manner.”
The coin was a hot topic of discussion during that three-hour vote on the Medicare bill last month.
With all the House members in one place, Souder spent much of those hours asking colleagues to support his legislation. He also learned that many of his fellow elected representatives weren’t really sure who’s on the dime right now.
“I don’t think I had ten members ask me, without being told who’s currently on it, ‘Hey, isn’t Franklin Roosevelt on the dime?’” Souder says. “One member insisted to me the whole night that Roosevelt’s not on the dime, it’s Eisenhower. We went around looking for a dime to resolve it.”
The next lesson? On the floor of the House, where so many tax dollars get spent, it was hard to find someone could spare a dime.
“We all emptied our pockets, and mostly came up with quarters and pennies,” Souder says with a laugh. “Almost everybody just had a bunch of 20-dollar bills, which just shows we had all gone to the ATM that day.”
–Jim Geraghty, a regular contributor to NRO, is a reporter for States News Service.