On Constitutional Monetary Moments

by Eric Schliesser on January 18, 2023

Earlier today,  after I tweeted out that “Proposals to mint $1tn platinum coin are designed to circumvent the US constitution’s “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts,” I got lectured by Nathan Tankus for “not grasping the most elementary legal issues in the topic you’re pontificating on.” This turns on the interpretation on the authority granted by Section 31 U.S. Code § 5112. Advocates of the platinum coin naturally like to quote the plain meaning of the text: “(k) The Secretary may mint and issue bullion and proof platinum coins in accordance with such specifications, designs, varieties, quantities, denominations, and inscriptions as the Secretary, in the Secretary’s discretion, may prescribe from time to time.” The plain meaning interpretation of (k) has been supported by Philip N. Diehl, former director of the United States Mint, who helped write the bill. But Diehl was not in Congress (and in virtue of his former office has obvious incentives to exaggerate its power and his former achievements).

However, the official author of the original bill, Representative Michael Castle, denied this interpretation, and suggested (quite plausibly in my opinion) that the provision was intended to cover collectibles (and not to provide the Treasure with the power to do an end run around any debt limits). I would be amazed if the original legislative record suggested otherwise. The law as we have it was inserted as a provisions into H.R. 3610, the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act for 1997. It would be interesting if the congressional leadership recorded any views on the matter at the time (and that would change my view!) But the revisionary (‘plain meaning interpretation’) wasn’t voiced until May 2010. Even Diehl has admitted at one point that (the ‘plain meaning interpretation’) would constitute an “unintended consequence” of the bill. [Quoted in Grey (2020) op. cit, p. 261.] So, I don’t think this is really in doubt.

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