THAT handful of US coins in your pocket or purse may have the same tinkly jingle - but a shiny new look - during the next several years. Under the terms of bipartisan legislation now before Congress, the designs of United States coinage could appear quite different by the mid-1990s. In: allegorical or symbolic representations of the Constitution and the US Bill of Rights. Possibly out: Monticello, the Lincoln Memorial, the American eagle, and torches.
It's not that the new designs may not also have memorials, eagles, or torches. It's just that they are expected to be designs reflective of the 1980s and 1990s, instead of the 1930s, '40s, '50s, and '60s, as in now largely the case, according to Diane Wolf, a member of the US Commission of Fine Arts.
The Senate, by unanimous vote June 23, approved legislation providing for a redesign of the reverse (tail side) of US circulating coinage - the penny, nickel, dime, quarter, and half dollar. A similar measure in the House has more than 250 co-sponsors. A subcommittee of the House Banking Committee held a hearing into the redesign proposal July 12. No final action is expected by the full Banking Committee, or the full House, until after the summer recess, according to a spokesman for committee. But were the measure to clear the House (and that in itself is not totally certain, since some lawmakers are believed reluctant to tamper with ``traditional'' coinage), President Bush is expected to sign the measure into law.
Under terms of the legislation, a coin would be struck each year for six years with the new design, starting with the quarter, which would carry a representation for two years based on the bicentennial of the Constitution. After the initial two years, the quarter would carry a design based on the Bill of Rights. Meanwhile, the other coins, one by one and on an annual basis, would be given a similar updating.
Obverses of each coin (the heads) would continue to carry the same presidents (Lincoln, Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, Washington, and Kennedy), but could be modified. All inscriptions and mottos now found on the coins would remain, as would the same size, weight, dimension, and metallic content.
Coins currently in circulation would not be recalled.
`COINS are pieces of sculpture,'' says Ms. Wolf, one of the seven commissioners on the Commission of Fine Arts. The commission, based in Washington, has design and regulatory jurisdiction over federal public buildings, as well as coins, medals, and insignias issued by the US government.
``The United States has been stuck in a rut,'' says Ms. Wolf, who maintains offices in New York. She was appointed to the commission in 1985 and is generally credited by numismatists as being the driving force behind the current effort to modernize US coins. Numismatic groups (collectors) are keen supporters of design change.
``In the Western world, the United States is the only major nation that has not redesigned its coins in recent years. The United Kingdom has redesigned its coins 72 times since 1900; Canada, 41 times; France, 22 times.''
Yet, notes Wolf, the head of the Lincoln penny has been basically the same since 1909, the tail since 1959; the Jefferson nickel has been the same since 1938; the Roosevelt dime, since 1946; the Washington quarter, since 1932; the Kennedy half-dollar, since 1964.
Assuming that the redesigns go forward, they will represent the first major change in ``business-strike'' (i.e., regular) coinage since the introduction of the Kennedy half-dollar in the 1960s. Washington did, of course, introduce a new dollar coin in the late 1970s, the Susan B. Anthony dollar. But its similarity in size to the quarter proved unpopular.
A change in coinage design will be good not only for the public and collectors, argues Ms. Wolf, but also for the US government. The Treasury is expected to clear more than $366 million from the changeover. That profit would result from the ``seigniorage'' - the difference between the cost of producing a coin (as little as 2.5 cents for the quarter), and the face value of the coin, as well as sales of proof coins to the nation's 3 million to 10 million coin collectors.