In April, we wrote about how Congress passes commemorative coin bills in order to help fund pet projects back home. Although earmarks may be banned, passing these bills allows Congressmen to funnel taxpayer cash back to their home districts. The process is a creative workaround to the House and Senate earmark rules and perfectly legal, if not a bit unsettling.
First, Congress passes the bill and it is signed into law. Then, the commemorative coins are minted by the Treasury, and all minting costs are recovered once people start buying the coins. The catch is that on top of the worth of the coin (50 cents, $1, or $5), a surcharge is placed, and all proceeds from the surcharge go to the icon featured on the coin.
The thing is, while this process may technically be allowed and the taxpayers aren't on the hook unless a coin flops, lawmakers are still leveraging federal power for a strictly local effort. The beneficiaries of this commemorative coin money tend to receive other federal funding, have their own commemorative coins or other ways of raising money. Also, it takes a significant amount of lobbying (subs. req'd.) to get these bills introduced, which brings up the same legal and ethics questions that are brought up with earmarks.
Why are we bringing this up again now?
For starters, by the end of the week, three commemorative coin bills may be voted on by the House: the Lions Clubs International Century of Service commemorative coin; the March of Dimes commemorative coin; and, the Pro Football Hall of Fame commemorative coin. Also to be voted on is a bill to direct surcharge profits collected from the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center commemorative coin.
Just to point out, does the Pro Football Hall of Fame need a federal life vest to stay afloat? A quick visit to their website shows that they not only raise funds from ticket sales, but also an extensive gift shop. Why are we wasting floor time and leveraging federal power for them?
For those of you outraged by this widely accepted Congressional process, there is an answer.
Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) plans to introduce a bill that would prohibit profits on the coins from going to private beneficiaries. It would require all profits to recoup the minting and issuing costs, and any excess to go to the Treasury for deficit reduction.
Congress will try to do everything it can to keep the government funds flowing back to their home districts in order to grease the wheels and gain votes. Senator DeMint's bill will help stop one avenue of their quid pro quo.