On December 2, 2020 the House of Representatives passed legislation that would allow the Mint to change the composition of coins. H.R. 7995 sponsored by Congressman Mark Amodei (R-NV) would permit a change in the metal content of our coins if it reduces costs and is seamless, which is determined by verifying that the coins will work interchangeably in most coin acceptors using electromagnetic signature technology.
Companion legislation was introduced in the Senate by Maggie Hassan (D-NH), S. 4006/S. 4663. Both bills allow the Treasury Secretary to change the composition of coins if it reduces costs and is seamless. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) sponsored another bill S. 1794 that is similar in many respects the Hassan bill but goes further and says there can be no change in coin diameter or weight. The Senate did not act on the legislation before adjourning at the end of 2020 so the bills will have to be reintroduced in the new Congress.
This Amodei legislative approach isn’t new. Similar House and Senate bills were introduced in 2007 to give Treasury authority to change the composition of circulating coins. Congress has balked at this plan over separation of powers concerns (Article I of the Constitution describes the design of the legislative branch of government. Section 8, Clause 5 grants Congress the power “to coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, and fix the standard of weights and measures”). Historically, Congress has been reluctant to relinquish that power to fix the standard of coin weight and measure to the executive branch. The Amodei bill would shift this power from Congress to the Executive Branch.
Ten years ago Congress passed The Coin Modernization, Oversight, and Continuity Act of 2010. That legislation required the Mint to conduct extensive research and development for metals alternatives, and come back to Congress by 2012 with detailed recommendations on coin changes. The Mint has conducted R&D on alternative metals and materials for circulating coins and has provided biennial reports to Congress, most recently submitting its fifth report for 2020 in January 2021.