Congress

A nice chunk of change: Commemorative coins benefit all involved

Coin bills are a surprisingly competitive affair as lawmakers race to get their bills approved

Coin bills are one of the last remaining ways for an individual member of Congress to bring home the bacon. (Courtesy the U.S. Mint)

Two weeks a month, Stephanie Keegan travels from her home in New York’s Hudson Valley to Washington to lobby Congress on a host of veterans’ issues. Of late, she’s spent much of her time working on what would seem like an arcane matter — getting lawmakers to co-sponsor a bill that would create a commemorative coin honoring a museum for Purple Heart recipients.

But it is serious business and she uses a variety of tactics: making constant phone calls, showing up at offices unannounced, provoking moist eyes.

“I make people cry . . . it’s a very effective tool,” she explained.

It’s not hard to see why she would precipitate such a response — her 28-year-old son Daniel, an Afghanistan veteran, died in 2016 after years battling post-traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction.

Her efforts have paid off. Thus far, 299 co-sponsors have signed onto the bill.

Coin bills are one of the last remaining ways for an individual member of Congress to bring home the bacon. It is a surprisingly competitive affair, as multiple lawmakers race to be the first to get their bills approved. Still, it is a practice not free of controversy — some in and out of Congress have derided such bills as a backdoor earmark. Crucially, the legislation doesn’t require taxpayer money.

Keegan, 59, a former medical insurance auditor, is an unpaid legislative director for the independent fundraising arm of the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, an institution in New Windsor, N.Y., that is owned and operated by the state. The fundraising organization figures it will take home at least $1 million from the sale of the coins to benefit the museum. The sponsor of the bill, Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, represents the district where the Hall of Honor is located.

In March, when he introduced the bill, Maloney called it one of his top legislative priorities this Congress.

That was “not only because it will honor our Purple Heart Recipients and the Hall of Honor, but also because it will generate revenue to support the Hall of Honor’s work,” he said, referring to the award given to those in the military who are either killed or wounded in combat.

It is the fourth time since 2014 that Maloney has tried to get this bill passed.

“This is our year,” he promised.

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The Democratic chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Mark Takano of California, threw his support behind the bill, as did Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican and an Iraq war veteran.

Michael White, a spokesman for the U.S. Mint, which makes the coins, said that the Hall of Honor’s expected take was typical. A silver dollar released in 2018 commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I stands to net $1.5 million in surcharge revenue — the portion of the money the sponsoring group receives from the sales. A coin for breast cancer research will likely net $1.2 million.

Although each of these coins made millions more in overall revenue, most of the money goes to paying back the Mint for design, production, marketing and administrative costs. Therefore, the federal government doesn’t lose any money on the coins.

The retail price to purchase one gold coin commemorating the 100th anniversary of the American Legion is $423.75. Aside from the $5 denomination and $35 surcharge, the rest of the price goes to the federal government.

Brian Maher, the executive director of the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, Inc., the independent fundraising arm of the museum, said much of the money the organization gets from the sale would go toward improving the museum itself as well as on a program to bring Purple Heart veterans from around the country to visit the museum.

The organization that benefits from the sale of the coin is required, by law, to raise enough money to match, dollar-for-dollar, the surcharge revenue. If the organization doesn’t match, the proceeds from the sale go back to the Treasury.

Since 1998, when matching requirements were first instituted on coin bills, organizations on average earned $3.3 million in surcharges. The biggest money-maker in that time period was a 2014 coin commemorating the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which made $7.9 million.

And in that time, one coin, for the Girl Scouts of America, did not get its surcharge money ($1.2 million), because the group was unable to cover the costs of production. In 2009 a coin commemorating the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth raised $5 million, but the group that would have gotten the money dissolved. In both cases, the amount reverted back to the Treasury.

By law, only two commemorative coins can be issued each year. Under House leadership guidelines, the first three bills that get at least 290 co-sponsors and have the support of the Financial Services chairperson are set up for likely floor action. That means the fighting among dozens of seemingly worthy causes can be fierce.

In the current Congress, lawmakers have introduced 14 coin bills. Complicating matters, one of the two 2020 slots was used up last year when legislation authorizing coins to recognize and celebrate the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., was enacted. Another bill honoring astronaut Christa McAuliffe also exceeded the 290 co-sponsor threshold.

Adding to the potential drama, GOP Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee has 82 co-sponsors on a coin bill, that the Senate passed Tuesday, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. There is a House companion measure. That bill is in direct competition with the McAuliffe measure for the remaining 2020 slot.

Aleks Morosky, the national legislative director of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, a separate nonprofit organization that is backing the Hall of Honor in its efforts, noted that one reason for the horse race among coins is that some of them are time-sensitive, like last year’s enactment of the American Legion’s 100th anniversary coin, which his group backed.

He added that once a bill gets momentum, its enactment prospects go way up.

“What happens with these coin bills is that the more co-sponsors you get, then the more people come to the realization that this is their year, I might as well become a co-sponsor because it looks to me like they are going to get it, so it starts snowballing like that,” Morosky said.

In 2012, coin bills became big news when Sen. Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, a Republican, was found to have sponsored multiple coin bills that ended up benefiting a lobbyist he once dated. Some in and out of Congress have called for changes to coin bills, but nothing has come of it. Rep. Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, has introduced multiple overhaul bills, most recently in 2015, but they have gone nowhere.

His spokeswoman Poppy Nelson noted in an email that the congressman joined South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint in introducing the bill originally in 2012 because “it’s not appropriate for the federal government to act as a fundraiser for private entities.” Amash said in a 2011 Facebook post after the House approved legislation for a coin for the U.S. Marshals Service’s 225th Anniversary coin that “for all intents and purposes, this is an earmark.”

Such concerns have not derailed efforts by outside organizations and lawmakers to get coin bills enacted.

And Larry Lohmann, senior legislative associate with The American Legion, had some advice to smaller groups trying to get a coin bill into law: “Do whatever you can to be a force multiplier to put the most people in front of a member [of Congress] as possible.”

Or as Keegan, the mother of the Afghanistan veteran, puts it: “I’m kind of a pain in the ass about it.”

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