The Trillion Dollar Coin and the Problem of Circulation

Everyone loves money. That is why they call it MONEY.” – David Mamet.

The trillion-dollar coin is a proposal to avoid the debt ceiling through a loophole in a federal statute that authorizes the U.S. Mint to coin platinum in any denomination. Platinum is reserved for commemorative issues, and the obscure statutory provision was certainly not intended by Congress to authorize the effective borrowing of a trillion dollars, but as a statutory matter, the trillion dollar coin may work.

I have not examined the matter too closely, but at least one constitutional question pops up here.

Congress is authorized to “coin money.” The proposed trillion-dollar coin is certainly a coin – but is it money? Money is created for circulation. As Justice Story put it in his Commentary on the constitution, the power to coin money is designed to “preserve a proper circulation of good coin of a known value.” Vol. 2, § 1118. That is why it is put into the convenient form of coins or bills. Specie never intended for circulation, one might argue, is simply not money.

The link between circulation and coinage has been noted by courts, though obviously nothing has been decided, at least as far as my brief inquiry revealed. Veazie Bank v. Fenno, 75 U.S. 533 (1869) (“It cannot be doubted that under the constitution the power to provide a circulation of coin is given to congress.”)

Let us turn to the dictionaries. “Money” is “metal coined for public use,” according to the 1788 edition of William Perry’s The royal standard English dictionary. This may lead to a debate about what a “public use” is, reminscent of the “general welfare” question in the Spending power. I would guess it means “use by the public,” a view supported by “Metal coined for the purposes of commerce,” according to the 1789 edition of Sheridan’s Complete dictionary of the English language.

There are of course many potential rejoinders (aside from the possibility that the money/circulation property is specious.) The transfer to Treasury could be deemed circulation, but this I think weak. More seriously, one would point out that all non-circulating commemorative coins would thus be unconstitutional. OK – but has any court said that they are constitutional? Apparently the making of such coins did not begin until 1892, so as an originalist matter, their long-standing existence does not prove much. Presumably no one ever had reason to make issue over their issue. And not all commemoratives are non-circulating.

In any case, I doubt this proposal will gain currency with President. He has previously dismissed the constitutional legitimacy of formalistic gimmicks and “procedural tricks,” like the Senate declaring itself in session to avoid recess appointments. Back them, the White House counsel said that since the Senate was “functionally” in recess, that is what counts. Presumably here they will see that this is “functionally” a money supply policy not authorized by Congress in evasion of a debt ceiling that was.

UPDATE: I have amended this a bit shortly after posting it.

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