Congress has discovered something that is almost as popular as printing more money.
It's minting more coins.
The same Congress that has been unable to reach a budget agreement with the White House appears likely to approve five proposals for commemorative coins to be issued during the next two years. And that's enough to have the U.S. Mint and coin collectors yelling foul.
"I told them they were killing the golden goose," said Mint Director Donna Pope. Along with a number of coin collectors, Pope has warned Congress repeatedly that the competing commemorative programs, each with sets of glistening gold and silver coins, are more than the coin market can stand.
"How deep are people's pockets?" asked Robert E. Wilhite, editor of Numismatic News, a coin newspaper. "It's a simple matter."
But according to Rep. Richard H. Lehman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House subcommittee on consumer affairs and coinage, members of Congress have discovered something else: the Mint's commmemorative coin program, which can raise millions of dollars for sponsoring organizations, is difficult to resist.
Lehman called the increasing use of the coins for fund-raising "alarming" and said he hopes congressional leaders will address the issue before Congress adjourns. "I personally think we've got to move away from concept of coins as fund-raisers . . . and use them for what they are used for around the world -- as a signature of our culture," Lehman said.
He expressed fears that the U.S. Olympic Committee may have received an "entitlement" to federal monies because Congress has earmarked millions of dollars from the sale of three sets of Olympic coins, to be released in 1992, for the committee's use in training American athletes.
During the current session, Congress has approved three commemorative coin sets and appears likely to endorse two more, according to Pope and others.
Among the winners:
A set of three coins to mark next year's 50th anniversary of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota, which could yield up to nearly $19 million for the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Society.
A single $1 silver coin that could raise $3.5 million for the United Services Organization (USO), which also will mark its 50th anniversary of assisting military personnel next year.
A single $1 silver coin that would raise $7 million for construction of the long-promised Korean War Veterans Memorial near the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall.
A set of three coins to mark the 1992 Olympic Games, which could give as much as $51.5 million to the U.S. Olympic Committee to use in the training of American athletes.
A set of three coins, also to be released in 1992, that would mark the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World and would raise $51.5 million for a new federal scholarship program.
Pope has called for limiting commemorative issues to a single set each year, saying that more than that will tax both the market and the Mint's ability to produce the billions of "circulating coins" required for daily use.
"There are just so many bucks a collector has to spend," Pope said. "Obviously, you don't have to be a genius to realize that they draw from one another."
The Mount Rushmore, Olympics and USO coins have been approved by Congress. The Korean War and Columbus measures are awaiting approval and are widely expected to pass. The Mint has endorsed the Columbus proposal, citing the prospective coin's worldwide appeal, and veterans groups are pressing for the Korean bill, saying that without it the memorial cannot be built.
Pope and Lehman noted that since the Reagan administration agreed to resume the government's long-suspended commemorative coin program in 1982, successive issues have had difficulty selling. A set dedicated to the bicentennial Congress proved to be a dud, and Pope said this year's offering, a single $1 silver coin marking the centennial of former president Dwight D. Eisenhower's birth, is selling "medium well, not as well as I would have liked."
Coin groups generally blame Congress. "We are against singling out the coin collectors as a cash cow to be milked whenever some deserving cause needs extra sustenance," complained Numismatic News.
"Congress is not only writing a blank check for their favorite charity, but they're doing it at the expense of a particular interest group, coin collectors," said David L. Ganz, a New York City lawyer and a director of the American Numismatic Association, a collectors' organization.
"I think that Congress has created a monster that only Congress can find the solution for," Ganz added, citing the Postal Service's method of funneling requests for commemorative stamps through an advisory committee.
Pope said the solution she prefers would be to enact legislation Lehman has introduced directing the Treasury Deparment to draw up a five-year plan for commemorative coins and give the executive branch stronger control over the program.
Congress, however, may be on the verge of issuing another coin directive that Pope said will make the commemorative program still more difficult to manage.
Attached to the omnibus housing bill is an amendment that would require the Mint to redesign the nation's non-commemorative coins -- all the pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters and half-dollars.
Pope said that if Congress enacts that proposal along with pending commemorative legislation, her staff will not be able to produce all the dies needed to mint the new coins.
Ganz sees another problem. To purchase all the coin sets the Mint could end up producing in a year -- including highly polished proof sets and costly gold bullion coins -- could cost a collector upwards of $4,000. "There is something grossly unfair about this," he said.