Congressman Asks for Dollar Bill Ban

Satirical letter alerts feds to an ‘unregulated and unstable’ currency that’s used by criminals.

Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., mocked anti-Bitcoin arguments made by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., in his own letter to regulators.

Rep. Jared Polis, right, mocked anti-Bitcoin arguments made by Sen. Joe Manchin, left, in his own letter to regulators.

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Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., asked federal regulators to ban dollar bills Wednesday, lampooning a similar request from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., that the feds ban the digital currency Bitcoin.

Manchin’s Feb. 26 letter to financial regulators said bitcoins have a “highly unstable” value and have “allowed users to participate in illicit activity.” He also said the currency is vulnerable to theft and noted it may have tax-related issues.

In a humorous rebuttal that nearly parrots Manchin, Polis wrote to the same regulators: “The clear use of dollar bills for transacting in illegal goods, anonymous transactions, tax fraud, and services or speculative gambling make me wary of their use. Before the United States gets too far behind the curve on this important topic, I urge the regulators to work together, act quickly, and prohibit this dangerous currency from harming hard-working Americans.”

Bitcoins were formerly used by participants in the Silk Road online drug marketplace, which was taken offline in October when the FBI arrested the site’s alleged operator, Ross William Ulbricht. Manchin pointed to Silk Road in his letter.

[GAROFALO: Don't Regulate Bitcoins … Yet]

Polis’ letter cited a similar concern. “The very features of dollar bills, such as anonymous transactions, have created ubiquitous uses from drug purchases, to hit men, to prostitutes, as dollar bills are attractive to criminals who are able to disguise their actions from law enforcement,” he wrote. “Dollar bills have gained notoriety in relation to illegal transactions; suitcases full of dollars used for illegal transactions were recently featured in popular movies such as American Hustle and Dallas Buyers Club, as well as the gangster classic, Scarface, among others.”

The digital currency is not issued or regulated by national governments, but has been increasingly accepted by businesses. Online retailer Overstock.com, for example, began accepting the currency for payments Jan. 9. It has accepted more than $1 million in bitcoin payments in less than two months, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.

The Manchin and Polis letters each were sent to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen, Comptroller of the Currency Thomas Curry and the leaders of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Securities and Exchange Commission. 

Yellen told the Senate Banking Committee Feb. 27 the Federal Reserve "doesn’t have authority to supervise or regulate Bitcoin in any way."


Manchin's Feb. 26 letter:

Dear Secretary Lew, Chairwoman Yellen, Commissioner Curry, Acting Chairman Wetjen, Chairman Gruenberg, Chairwoman White:

I write today to express my concerns about Bitcoin. This virtual currency is currently unregulated and has allowed users to participate in illicit activity, while also being highly unstable and disruptive to our economy. For the reasons outlined below, I urge regulators to take appropriate action to limit the abilities of this highly unstable currency.

By way of background, Bitcoin is a crypto-currency that has gained notoriety in recent months due to its rising exchange value and relation to illegal transactions. Each Bitcoin is defined by a public address and a private key, thus Bitcoin is not only a token of value but also a method for transferring that value. It also means that Bitcoin provides a unique digital fingerprint, which allows for anonymous and irreversible transactions.

The very features that make Bitcoin attractive to some also attract criminals who are able to disguise their actions from law enforcement. Due to Bitcoin’s anonymity, the virtual market has been extremely susceptible to hackers and scam artists stealing millions from Bitcoins users. Anonymity combined with Bitcoin’s ability to finalize transactions quickly, makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to reverse fraudulent transactions.

Bitcoin has also become a haven for individuals to buy black market items. Individuals are able to anonymously purchase items such as drugs and weapons illegally. I have already written to regulators once on the now-closed Silkroad, which operated for years in supplying drugs and other black market items to criminals, thanks in large part to the creation of Bitcoin.

That is why more than a handful of countries, and their banking systems, have cautioned against the use of Bitcoin. Indeed, it has been banned in two different countries—Thailand and China—and South Korea stated that it will not recognize Bitcoin as a legitimate currency. Several other countries, including the European Union, have issued warnings to Bitcoin users as their respective governments consider options for regulating or banning its use entirely. While it is disappointing that the world leader and epicenter of the banking industry will only follow suit instead of making policy, it is high time that the United States heed our allies’ warnings. I am most concerned that as Bitcoin is inevitably banned in other countries, Americans will be left holding the bag on a valueless currency.

Our foreign counterparts have already understood the wide range of problems even with Bitcoin’s legitimate uses - from its significant price fluctuations to its deflationary nature. Just last week, Bitcoin prices plunged after the currency’s major exchange, Mt. Gox, experienced technical issues. Two days ago, this exchange took its website down and is no longer even accessible. This was not a unique event; news of plummeting or skyrocketing Bitcoin prices is almost a weekly occurrence. In addition, its deflationary trends ensure that only speculators, such as so-called “Bitcoin miners,” will benefit from possessing the virtual currency. There is no doubt average American consumers stand to lose by transacting in Bitcoin. As of December 2013, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) shows 1.3% inflation, while a recent media report indicated Bitcoin CPI has 98% deflation. In other words, spending Bitcoin now will cost you many orders of wealth in the future. This flaw makes Bitcoin’s value to the U.S. economy suspect, if not outright detrimental.

The clear ends of Bitcoin for either transacting in illegal goods and services or speculative gambling make me weary of its use. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee issued a report just this month stating, “There is widespread concern about the Bitcoin system’s possible impact on national currencies, its potential for criminal misuse, and the implications of its use for taxation.” Before the U.S. gets too far behind the curve on this important topic, I urge the regulators to work together, act quickly, and prohibit this dangerous currency from harming hard-working Americans.

Sincerely,
U.S. Joe Manchin III
United States Senator

Polis' March 5 Retort:

Dear Secretary Lew, Chairwoman Yellen, Comptroller Curry, Acting Chairman Wetjen, Chairman Gruenberg, Chairwoman White:

I write today to express my concerns about United States dollar bills. The exchange of dollar bills, including high denomination bills, is currently unregulated and has allowed users to participate in illicit activity, while also being highly subject to forgery, theft, and loss. For the reasons outlined below, I urge regulators to take immediate and appropriate action to limit the use of dollar bills.

By way of background, a physical dollar bill is a printed version of a dollar note issued by the Federal Reserve and backed by the ephemeral “full faith and credit” of the United States. Dollar bills have gained notoriety in relation to illegal transactions; suitcases full of dollars used for illegal transactions were recently featured in popular movies such as American Hustle and Dallas Buyers Club, as well as the gangster classic, Scarface, among others. Dollar bills are present in nearly all major drug busts in the United States and many abroad. According to the U.S. Department of Justice study, “Crime in the United States,” more than $1 billion in cash was stolen in 2012, of which less than 3% was recovered. The United States’ Dollar was present by the truck load in Saddam Hussein’s compound, by the carload when Noriega was arrested for drug trafficking, and by the suitcase full in the Watergate case.

Unlike digital currencies, which are carbon neutral allowing us to breathe cleaner air, each dollar bill is manufactured from virgin materials like cotton and linen, which go through extensive treatment and processing. Last year, the Federal Reserve had to destroy $3 billion worth of $100 bills after a “printing error.” Certainly this cannot be the greenest currency.

Printed pieces of paper can fit in a person’s pocket and can be given to another person without any government oversight. Dollar bills are not only a store of value but also a method for transferring that value. This also means that dollar bills allow for anonymous and irreversible transactions.

The very features of dollar bills, such as anonymous transactions, have created ubiquitous uses from drug purchases, to hit men, to prostitutes, as dollar bills are attractive to criminals who are able to disguise their actions from law enforcement. Due to the dollar bills’ anonymity, the dollar bill market has been extremely susceptible to forgers, tax fraud, criminal cartels, and armed robbers stealing millions of dollars from their legitimate owners. Anonymity, combined with a dollar bills’ ability to finalize transactions quickly, makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to reverse fraudulent transactions.

Many of our foreign counterparts already understand the wide range of problems that physical currencies can have. Many physical currencies have enormous price fluctuations, and even experience deflation. 20 years ago Brazil had an inflation rate of 6281%. In 4 years (2001 to 2005), the Turkish Lira went from 1,650,000: $1 to 1.29 to $1. In 2009, Zimbabwe discontinued it’s dollar. Before it was eliminated, the Zimbabwe dollar was the least valuable currency in the world and their central bank even issued a $100 trillion dollar banknote. A person would starve on a billion Zimbabwe dollars and it took an entire wheelbarrow full of $100 billion dollars in notes to purchase a loaf of bread.

The clear use of dollar bills for transacting in illegal goods, anonymous transactions, tax fraud, and services or speculative gambling make me wary of their use. Before the United States gets too far behind the curve on this important topic, I urge the regulators to work together, act quickly, and prohibit this dangerous currency from harming hard-working Americans.

Sincerely,
Jared Polis
Member of Congress