Tails I win, tails you lose


THE LEGACY of the Gingrich Congress is not likely to include term limits, a flag-burning amendment, prayer in the schools or most of the original promises of the "Contract With America."

The Departments of Commerce, Education and Energy, prime Republican candidates for extinction, are still standing. The ethical record of this Congress will forever wear a price tag of $300,000, the amount the House Ethics Committee decided was sufficient to wash Speaker Newt Gingrich clean of the sins he stood accused of.

This latest agreement for a balanced budget by 2002, together with a cafeteria of tax cuts that will make the tax code even more unintelligible and less even-handed, will have to wait another five years for a final judgment. It's a crapshoot as to whether it fails any more ingloriously than Ronald Reagan's "self-financing" tax cuts of 1981, the ludicrous Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act or George Bush's famous "flexible freeze," all measures that were supposed to make balancing the budget as easy as falling off a log.

But, by heaven, this revolutionized Congress is going to find something positive we can remember it by. It will change the tails side of the quarter. Not only that, but in a stunning act of devolution, it will return to the states something they never had -- the right to put their own bird, beast, person, symbol or geegaw in place of the stately eagle that has graced the 25-cent piece since before I was born. It has proposed that the Treasury start minting five states a year, in order of their admission to the union, beginning in 1999.

Numismatic billboard

Now, this seems like a harmless piece of foolishness until you think it through. Imagine 50 legislatures getting their hands on the quarter, with resultant catfights among groups and interests to get on this numismatic billboard offered by the U.S. Mint.

At best we'll end up with something like the 50 examples of license plates we now have, ranging from the silly to the tasteless to the insipid. At worst we'll end up with impossible compromises that try to cram so much onto the 15/16ths of an inch of available space that the unrecognizable monstrosities we'll end up with can be readily imagined.

Already Joe DiMaggio has been suggested for New York's quarter, and Martha Stewart's in the running for Connecticut. But wait. The quarter is the most commonly used coin for settling disputes. If states start putting everybody from Elvis to DiMaggio on the other side of Washington, it'll become useless for flipping. Besides, you don't put people on both sides of a coin. It just isn't done, not even in banana republics.

If Congress has nothing better to do than to start messing with the coinage, there are useful alternatives. What's badly needed is a decent dollar coin, and it sure wouldn't hurt to bring back the once widely circulated half-dollar. The Susan B. Anthony dollar, minted from 1979 to 1981, was such a miserable flop that succeeding Treasury secretaries have been reluctant to try again.

Give us a widely circulated dollar that can easily be recognized in a pocket full of change and you can put Newt Gingrich on it, for all I care. He might even fit since he's lost all that weight.

Robert H. Reno is a columnist for Newsday.

Pub Date: 8/25/97

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