Former lawmaker pushes for $1 coin over dollar bill

WASHINGTON - As the federal government attempts to cut costs, the dollar bill itself has gotten caught in a tug of war.

On one side are proponents of the traditional paper currency; on the other are those who want to replace it with more durable metal coins.

The debate has intensified with recent conflicting congressional legislation and with a report, released earlier this month, showing the government would save $4.5 billion over 30 years by replacing the greenback with a coin.

"Most people take the dollar bill somewhat for granted. It's always been there, it's reliable, it's a symbol of our nation's history, it's a symbol of our nation's economic strength," says David Crane, spokesman for Americans for George, a group lobbying on behalf of the familiar greenback bearing George Washington's portrait.

The American currency system is outdated, contends Jim Kolbe, who heads the Dollar Coin Alliance, an organization in favor of the coin.

"It's important that we have a currency that works, that people will use instead of having to always use credit cards," says Kolbe, a former Republican congressman from Arizona, a leading state in metal mining.

As for Crane, he's an eighth-generation paper maker and the vice president of Crane & Co., a Massachusetts business that serves as the sole paper supplier for U.S. currency.

The Government Accountability Office, an independent, nonpartisan congressional watchdog, last March issued a report saying the government would save $5.5 billion over 30 years by switching to the dollar coin.

In September, a bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to get rid of the greenback. Several days later, Scott Brown, the Republican senator from Crane's home state of Massachusetts, proposed legislation to end the dollar coin's production.

In January, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain responded by co-sponsoring another bill to do away with the paper note.

"With our nation's debt now over $15 trillion, Congress must look at every area of the federal government, big or small, to save money," McCain said in a statement.

Brown asked the GAO to re-examine the issue. The GAO complied, releasing a report Feb. 15 saying the government would save money by converting to the coin --albeit $1 billion less than previously projected.

As the debate ensues, 1.4 billion new dollar coins sit unused in Federal Reserve vaults. The U.S. Mint suspended the dollar coin program in December. It printed 2.9 billion $1 notes last year, accounting for 45 percent of the currency production at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

Crane said the change would cost his company hundreds of jobs as the $1 bill makes up a significant amount of the company's production.

"Would we survive?" Crane asked rhetorically. "Yeah, I suppose we would; we would just be smaller -- we'd have to figure out a way to downsize the company and a number of these jobs would just go away and not come back."

The American dollar bill has been around since 1862, when the federal government issued the first ever round of $1 notes. The buying power of a dollar has decreased significantly since.

"It's time to recognize the realities, the toll that inflation's (had)," Kolbe said. "It's time to recognize that toll and to simply modernize the currency."

Like Congress, people around the Capital are split on the issue.

Bob Opiela, a tourist visiting Washington from Phoenixville, Pa., said he likes the coins -- until he found out they might become the new normal.

"I think that would be terrible," Opiela said. "I think people are used to dollar bills. They're kind of easier to carry; you can put them in your wallet or purse."

Would you be in favor of scrapping the dollar bill?

"Absolutely, throw the penny in there as well," said David Wall, a government employee from Washington, D.C.

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