THE 101ST CONGRESS was highly productive when it came to endorsing coin proposals, but it surprised many collectors by rebuffing two leading figures in the coin world.
Both Diane Wolf, the New York socialite who has led a four-year fight to force a redesign of the nation's coins, and Rep. Frank Annunzio (D-Ill.), once "the coin czar" of Capitol Hill, suffered defeats in the final hours of a session that endorsed five major coin proposals.
It wasn't supposed to turn out that way. Shortly before Congress adjourned Oct. 28, Wolf, the former member of the Commission of Fine Arts, was issuing press releases predicting victory. With the help of Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Wolf's redesign measure was attached to at least six bills and its passage seemed certain.
Annunizo, Wolf's longtime foe and the former chairman of the House Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs and Coinage, also seemed headed for victory with a less controversial proposal. He wanted a set of three coins to mark the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World. It seemed like a small request for a man who presided over coin proposals with an iron hand and had the Mint warmly endorsing his proposal.
In the end, however both Wolf's and Annunzio's proposals died rather inglorious deaths at the hands of the House Democratic leadership. In the case of coin redesign, the House leaders were acting with the strong support of the Bush administration, which somewhat belatedly decided to oppose Wolf.
What went wrong with Annunzio's coin bill was his refusal to allow what some regarded as a critical savings and loan bill to pass. The measure, which the House leadership and the Bush administration wanted, would have provided an additional $10 billion for the Resolution Trust Corp., the federal government agency handling the S&L cleanup.
With Annunzio's refusal to let that bill pass, some House officials said the leadership decided to play hardball with Annunzio: no RTC financing, no Columbus coins.
House aides cite a number of reasons for the failure of Wolf's proposal, but the key factor appears to be that the Treasury Department finally blasted the idea, arguing that many of Wolf's claims were wrong. In a letter sent to Capitol Hill, Deputy Treasury Secretary John E. Robson charged that the public likes the coins just the way they are and that the coins and their "timeless" appearance "reflect the economic and political stability of our nation."
Few on Capitol Hill expect either Wolf or Annunzio to drop their causes. But the congressman may have a better chance for reviving his proposal in January since all he has to do is compromise on one piece of legislation. Congressional aides say Wolf might have been able to salvage her proposal, which had won wide support on Capitol Hill, if she'd been willing to compromise on anything. She wasn't.
Moreover, her redesign measure seems certain to face strong opposition from Treasury officials during the next congressional session. In the past their comments were muted, perhaps because Wolf was seen as a GOP fundraiser whom the White House did not want to anger.
Congress did approve a large number of coin proposals. A three-coin set honoring the 50th anniversary of the Mount Rushmore National Monument in South Dakota won early approval in the session and sales of the coins could begin early next year.
A 1992 set of three Olympic coins -- a $5 gold, $1 silver and a half-dollar clad -- to fund U.S. Olympic Committee training programs also won approval despite the misgivings of Rep. Richard Lehman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs and Coinage. He said he fears the repeated Olympic coins sets Congress has approved for the Olympic committee may have given it an "entitlement" to federal aid.
Two silver dollars won approval, one to mark the 50th anniversary of the United Services Organization (USO) and another to fund construction of a Korean War Memorial on the Mall. Both will be released next year.
Also approved was a proposal that coin collectors have long sought: production of proof coin sets made of 90-percent silver. The sets would include the Roosevelt dime, Washington quarter and Kennedy half-dollar and would be in addition to the proof sets made of the coins' traditional copper-nickel alloy.
Officials at the Silver Institute, a Washington group that represents silver miners and manufacturers, has estimated that the Mint could sell between 2 and 3 million of the silver sets, which would be priced largely on the basis of the value of the silver in the coins.
What has troubled many collectors -- and some in Congress -- is that many of these coins will be hitting the market at the same time. Citing the difficulty the Mint has had selling recent commemoratives, they question whether all the new issues can be effectively marketed. Mint officials have urged no more than one commemorative coin program a year.
Without exception, however, the advocates of each of the new coins say theirs will be a bestseller.
Bill McAllister is a member of The Washington Post national staff.