It would probably come as a shock to most Americans to learn that the Medal of Honor - the nation's highest military award - is made of brass and costs only $29.98.
That information is straight from the media relations office of the U.S. Army. The Air Force says its version is a little pricier, costing about $75. In contrast, the so-called Congressional Gold Medal - whose recipients have included entertainment celebrities such as John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and Danny Thomas, poet Robert Frost, civil rights leader Roy Wilkins and foreign dignitaries such as Nelson Mandela - is 90 percent gold and is authorized at a cost of $30,000, according to Rep. Joe Baca, California Democrat.
Mr. Baca and a bipartisan group of 15 other House members, mostly Democrats, say that's not right. They are sponsoring a bill that would require that the metal content of the Medal of Honor also be 90 percent gold and 10 percent alloy. The change would apply to any Medal of Honor awarded after passage of the measure.
"At this time of war, it becomes even more crucial to properly recognize those that sacrifice their lives in defense of our nation. Our men and women in service deserve nothing less. We ought to treat a valiant soldier with at least the same respect we give foreign dignitaries," says Mr. Baca, one of the conservative congressional Democrats know as "Blue Dogs."
"These brave men and women who wear their uniform with honor and who distinguish themselves to the point of being awarded their nation's highest tribute deserve nothing less than the real thing. The cost and the metal content are not the issue. The issue is that we must give our most highly honored veterans a medal more reflective of their bravery and sacrifice," Mr. Baca said.
For those worried about the expense, he says: "The cost of my proposal would be minimal. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the cost per medal would come to around $2,000."
An aide noted that 20 Medals of Honor have been awarded since 1979, an average of about one each year. He said the $2,000 figure represented what CBO estimated would be the average annual cost for predominantly gold versions of the medal.
Mr. Baca introduced his bill nearly a year ago, but since then it has gone unnoticed by the national media. The bill was submitted to House Armed Services' military personnel subcommittee, which immediately sent it to the Department of Defense for its review. A Defense Department called the congressman's office in August to ask several questions about the bill.
"The person asking the questions seemed extremely enthusiastic," an aide to Mr. Baca said.
Attempts to reach a Pentagon official knowledgeable about the bill were unsuccessful Friday, but the bill's sponsors were eager to talk about it.
"The Medal of Honor is the highest award you can give military men and women. They gave the ultimate to earn that award. So it only makes sense to give an award fitting the honor. It's the Medal of Honor. It should be of the highest quality," said Nick Manetto, spokesman for Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, and chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Mr. Smith believes Congress should be willing to spend an amount "on a par" with what's spent on a Congressional Gold Medal for a more valuable Medal of Honor, his spokesman said.
Said Josh Rogin, spokesman for Rep. Robert Wexler, Florida Democrat: "The quality of the medal should reflect the quality of service [of the recipients] and of the sacrifice they made."
Of the 16 House members listed as sponsors of the bill, only three are Republicans. Supporters of the bill say they believe that is more a reflection of a lack of knowledge about the bill than concerns about what it could cost.
Mr. Rogin pointed out that a total of 3,456 Medals of Honor have been awarded in U.S. history and that there are fewer than 150 surviving Medal of Honor recipients.
"So it's not as if they give these medals out all the time," he said.
Mr. Baca said the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars have expressed interest in the measure and are considering formal endorsement. But Victoria Leslie, director of operations for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, acknowledged she has some reservations. She said she worries that giving future Medal of Honor recipients a medal more valuable than the one awarded in the past might wrongly suggest the contributions of past recipients were less valuable. Mrs. Leslie said recipients would not legally be able to profit financially from a more expensive medal.
"It's a federal offense to purchase, sell, trade, replicate or impersonate
a Medal of Honor," she said.