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Politicians in Washington hardly let a few minutes go by without mentioning that the government is broke. So you may be surprised to hear that there are more than one billion one-dollar coins sitting unused in government vaults. And the number is growing.

The pileup is due to a law passed in 2005 requiring the minting of a new set of dollar coins honoring all the presidents - all of them. A law Congress passed and then apparently, forgot.

Robert Benincasa, with our investigative team, and David Kestenbaum, with NPR's Planet Money, unearthed the story.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: The situation with the dollar coins has gotten so serious that the Federal Reserve had to redesign a vault in Texas to hold them all.

ROBERT BENINCASA: We got to see some of the coins at another vault in Baltimore.

(Soundbite of vault door opening)

Ms. AMY ESCHMAN (Assistant Vice President, Cash Operations, Federal Reserve, Baltimore): This is our coin vault. It's roughly the size of a soccer field.

KESTENBAUM: Amy Eschman is assistant vice president of cash operations here.

BENINCASA: The place looks more like a giant basement than a vault. There are rows and rows of metal bins filled with plastic bags, filled with coins.

KESTENBAUM: Why are the coins here? In 2005, Congress passed a law, ordering the Mint to make dollar coins honoring all the presidents, starting with Washington. It was the latest attempt to get Americans to use dollar coins. We're up to Ulysses S. Grant so far.

BENINCASA: If you've never seen a presidential dollar coin - well, they never really caught on.

KESTENBAUM: We look in the bags, and along with the presidents are those Sacagawea dollar coins. Sacagawea - the Native American woman who guided the explorers Lewis and Clark - those coins are still being minted, too. It's required by law.

BENINCASA: The coins cost 30 cents each to make. The government has a billion coins in vaults. Do the math; that's $300 million wasted.

KESTENBAUM: Each bag of 2,000 coins weighs around 35 pounds.

Can I try and lift it up? OK.

Ms. ESCHMAN: We actually have some posters in our break room that have proper lifting and stretching.

BENINCASA: You might think the Mint could just make fewer coins. But the way the law is written, it can't. There are two main reasons the coins are piling up.

KESTENBAUM: First, the law requires that as the Mint makes its way through the presidents, it has to create enough of each coin to satisfy initial demand.

BENINCASA: So take Thomas Jefferson - popular president. The Fed estimated people would want 168 million Jefferson coins. So it ordered that many from the Mint. And the coins went out into the world.

KESTENBAUM: But when people didn't want the coins anymore, they came back to the Fed, where they sat in the vaults. This happens with every president as we go down the list.

BENINCASA: The other reason coins pile up, is a second provision Congress put in the law. That requires the Mint to keep making those Sacagawea coins.

KESTENBAUM: Currently, if the Mint makes, say, 100 million Millard Fillmore coins, it has to make 25 million Sacagawea coins - one for every four presidential coins. According to the Fed, there's basically no new demand for Sacagawea coins. So they pile up at the vault, too.

BENINCASA: So what was Congress thinking? Well, we have tape of what Congress was thinking.

Representative CAROLYN MALONEY (Democrat, New York): I rise in support of a bill that Mr. Castle and I have authored, that is a win-win for taxpayers and the economy.

KESTENBAUM: This is congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, Democrat from New York, speaking on the House floor in 2005.

Rep. MALONEY: This bill earns money for the government, benefits the small businesses and consumers, educates all users of American currency about their presidents and first ladies.

KESTENBAUM: Congresswoman Maloney declined to be interviewed for this story.

BENINCASA: She was partly right. The program is making the government money, overall. The coins cost 30 cents to make. And if someone wants one, they pay a dollar for it. So the government makes 70 cents on those.

KESTENBAUM: But still, something like 40 percent of the coins end up in vaults. The government is wasting money, making money.

We did reach a lawmaker behind the bill who is no longer in office - Mike Castle, Republican from Delaware. He says the hope that people would shift away from paper dollars to dollar coins just did not happen. He says he's never actually seen one of the coins in circulation.

Mr. MIKE CASTLE (Former Congressman): It's hard to come by them. Good luck. You could spend an entire day in New York City or another big city, trying to find a dollar coin in your change, and you'd be hard pressed to do so.

BENINCASA: We shared the most recent numbers with Mike Castle. He said if he were still in Congress, he'd try to change the law.

Mr. CASTLE: It's ridiculous to have this kind of over-inventory pile up. You know, I might actually make some phone calls myself.

KESTENBAUM: There was one more key lawmaker in the House involved.

Rep. MALONEY: I grant Earl Pomeroy, congressman Pomeroy, all the time that he desires.

KESTENBAUM: Earl Pomeroy, Democrat from North Dakota, fought to get language in the bill, to make sure the U.S. kept making those Sacagawea coins.

Mr. EARL POMEROY (Former Democratic Congressman, North Dakota): You see, I represent the State of North Dakota, home of Sakakawea, as we say in Hidatsa; Sacajawea, as she is known in the Shoshoni language.

KESTENBAUM: We reached Earl Pomeroy, who is also no longer in Congress. He agrees now, looking back, that quota he pushed for has turned out to be a problem. But he sees the whole program as a failure.

Mr. POMEROY: I think the foolish part of the law may be not the Sakakawea part, but the fact that with no one picking up these coins, we've got to keep printing them because we've got to get through the rest of the president's list. Now that, to me, doesn't seem to make any sense at all.

You know, is the nation waiting with bated breath for us to get to the Calvin Coolidge coin? No. Maybe we should call a halt on this whole thing.

BENINCASA: The Federal Reserve is set to deliver its 2011 update on the Presidential Dollar Coin Program to Congress shortly.

KESTENBAUM: The Mint, meanwhile, is readying to release the next batch of presidential dollar coins: Rutherford B. Hayes, who served from 1877 to 1881.

I'm David Kestenbaum.

BENINCASA: And I'm Robert Benincasa, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And you can see photos inside the vault, and read more about our investigation, at NPR.org.

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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