One Is the Loneliest Dollar Bill

Why hasn’t George Washington gotten a makeover in 50 years? The vending machine lobby, of course.

A person holds a one dollar bill on December 18, 2011 in San Jose, Costa Rica.
National Journal
Jan. 28, 2014, midnight

First Jack­son got a bright green tinge, then Grant earned him­self an Amer­ic­an flag. Then Lin­coln got a purple eagle, Hamilton was giv­en the first line of the Con­sti­tu­tion in swirly red text, and just last year, Frank­lin was giv­en a col­or-chan­ging bell.

But poor George Wash­ing­ton, the face of the $1 bill, hasn’t got­ten a makeover in more than 50 years. And thanks to a spend­ing bill passed by Con­gress last week, he isn’t likely to get an up­date any­time soon.

In the last 10 years, the Fed­er­al Re­serve has re­designed the $5, $10, $20, and $50 bills, adding col­or and wa­ter­marks to pre­vent coun­ter­feit­ing. But Con­gress and the pres­id­ent him­self have pushed pro­vi­sions in re­cent budgets to pre­vent the Treas­ury De­part­ment from spend­ing any of its funds to give the $1 bill a new look, leav­ing Wash­ing­ton with the same design he’s had since 1963, when “In God We Trust” was ad­ded to all Fed­er­al Re­serve notes.

Poor George Wash­ing­ton, the face of the $1 bill, hasn’t got­ten a makeover in more than 50 years.

The last time the $1 had a real face-lift was in 1929. Even the rare $2 bill has seen a more re­cent up­grade, with its 1976 makeover.

For the last sev­er­al years, budgets com­posed by the pres­id­ent and Con­gress have in­cluded spe­cif­ic lan­guage pre­vent­ing the Treas­ury De­part­ment from us­ing its funds to re­design the $1 bill. That pro­vi­sion was also in­cluded in this month’s om­ni­bus spend­ing bill.

The Fed­er­al Re­serve re­designs cur­rency largely to pre­vent coun­ter­feit­ing, and $1 bills are not a fre­quent tar­get. Would-be crim­in­als are more of­ten lured by lar­ger bills, ac­cord­ing to in­form­a­tion provided to the Fed by the Secret Ser­vice and oth­er law-en­force­ment agen­cies.

The vend­ing in­dustry has ar­gued that the costs of re­design­ing its ma­chines to re­cog­nize the new bills would be pro­hib­it­ive. The Na­tion­al Auto­mat­ic Mer­chand­ising As­so­ci­ation es­tim­ated in 2008 that 20 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans use one of the na­tion’s 7 mil­lion vend­ing ma­chines every work day.

Those con­cerns were in­stru­ment­al in the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s move to block the $1 bill from a makeover in the early 2000s.

“As long as the $1 bill is around, NAMA will work to pre­serve the cur­rent design of the bill, the same design we’ve had since 1929. Re­design would be very costly to our op­er­at­or mem­bers. And equally im­port­ant, we will work with the Fed­er­al Re­serve to im­prove the qual­ity of the cir­cu­lat­ing green­back,” Thomas McMa­hon, then-seni­or vice pres­id­ent for the vend­ing in­dustry’s top lob­by­ing group, wrote in 2006.

NAMA de­clined to dis­cuss its his­tory of op­pos­i­tion to a re­design. But Eric Dell, the group’s cur­rent seni­or vice pres­id­ent for gov­ern­ment af­fairs, said in a state­ment Monday: “Should the Con­gress and or the [Bur­eau of Print­ing and En­grav­ing] de­cide to move for­ward with a re­design, we would wel­come the op­por­tun­ity to as­sess the in­dustry im­pact of any pro­pos­al and provide in­form­a­tion at that time.”

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